.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Are key Labour figures still in denial on the anti-semitism row?

There is a rule in politics, as in other walks of life, that when in a hole stop digging. It is a rule that Labour's former disputes panel chair would do well to follow.

I believe that the facts in her case are not in dispute. Christine Shawcroft, stepped down as chair of Labour’s disputes panel on Wednesday after questioning the suspension of an alleged Holocaust denier. As the Guardian reports an e-mail has been made public in which she questioned the suspension of the Peterborough council candidate Alan Bull:

Bull was accused of sharing on Facebook an article headlined “International Red Cross report confirms the Holocaust of 6m Jews is a hoax”, illustrated with a photograph of the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

In a public Facebook post on Friday, Shawcroft said she had not seen the “appalling and abhorrent” article before e-mailing left-wing colleagues on Labour’s ruling national executive council (NEC) to support Bull. “As soon as I saw it I told the member that he should have anti-Semitism training,” she added.

I have no problem with that explanation. She made a mistake. I would say though that in her position she should have checked before sending the e-mail. There is also a question as to whether somebody who chairs a disputes panel should be involving themselves in an issue that might come before them for adjudication, though I ask that without fully understanding her constitutional role.

However, to then go on and state “This whole row is being stirred up to attack Jeremy, as we all know,” Shawcroft went on. “That someone who has spent his whole life fighting racism in all its forms should find himself being accused of not doing enough to counter it, absolutely beggars belief.” just undermines her whole position.

It is this backtracking and caveating that is Labour's problem. It is also Jeremy Corbyn's problem, for no matter how good his anti-racist credentials are, he just seems to be incapable of taking a strong enough position to put the issue behind him.

As the Birmingham MP, Jess Phillips says, “The idea that the whole thing is a conspiracy is part of the problem”. She believes that Corbyn should personally urge Shawcroft to step down. The Labour leader’s office has pressed Shawcroft to give up the disputes panel chair on Wednesday but does not intend to intervene further, and that is why the issue refuses to go away.

Of course Christine Shawcroft is not the only one who is seeing conspiracies everywhere. Welsh Labour Grassroots Momentum have issued a statement on the anti-Semitism row that digs a hole so deep they may well have to start commenting on the Australian cricket ball-tampering row.

Rather than address the issue, they have attacked the accusers. They argue that 'supposed extent of anti-semitism within our party has been systematically exaggerated by those on the political right – with the support, sadly, of some Labour MPs – in an attempt to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, the socialist left and supporters of the Palestinian people.' and argue that allegations of anti-Semitism are being used as a political weapon against the Labour Party.

Whilst Labour continue to try to deflect criticism rather than address it head-on then it will continue to haunt them. And that applies to Jeremy Corbyn as much as it does to others in his party.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Has Labour finally sold out on Brexit?

It we thought that Labour's lukewarm opposition on Brexit was a sign of indecision and ineffectiveness then their Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry finally put paid to that earlier this week. She unveiled the real agenda of the Labour leadership when she told a Chatham House event that the party would most probably vote for the final deal.

This was apparently news to the Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, whose efforts to keep Labour on the straight and narrow have been roughly akin to a tight rope walker navigating the sharp edge of a razor blade.

Starmer emphasised Labour's “six tests” that any agreement must meet (including delivering the “exact same benefits” as membership of the single market and customs union) before the party would vote with the Prime Minister.

As the New Statesman points out, rather like Gordon Brown's “five tests” for euro membership, these appear deliberately unachievable (both the EU and the UK government have stated that Britain will not retain the “exact same benefits” after the planned transition period). They were also dismissed by Thornberry in her speech as inconsequential.

Chuka Umunna, one of Labour's leading pro-Europeans, responded in robust fashion:

“It is extraordinary and unacceptable that the shadow foreign secretary seems to be suggesting that some ‘blah blah’ from the Government will be enough to secure Labour’s support to write the Government a blank cheque for Brexit.

“It’s an old-fashioned idea but it is the job of the opposition to hold the government to account and that is what our members expect to see rather than blasé chat about ‘blah blah’ on the most important issue facing the country.

“The public will rightly take a very dim view of the Labour frontbench joining arm in arm with the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg and other Brextremists to vote for a Brexit which will cost jobs, damage living standards and leave our public services with less investment.”

However, he has become increasingly marginalised within Labour, a fate that Keir Starmer is working hard to avoid, apparently with little success.

If Labour do ditch their six conditions and vote for a Brexit deal that does not retain the benefits of the single market and customs union then they will have let down a large number of remainers who voted for them, as well as betraying the best interests of the country, finally divesting themselves of any right to be termed an opposition party.

Those remainers still holding out hope that Labour will come good, should not hold their breath.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Labour MPs targeted over anti-semitism protests

I have never been a Labour supporter, but in the past I have respected that party for the values it is meant to stand for. The party's internationalism, its opposition to racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination and its championing of social justice have marked Labour out as a movement on the centre left.

Labour's actions on the ground have not always reflected its values but then that can also be said of any political party. My beef with them has been their innate conservatism on some social issues, their inability to value the role of the individual and communities, and their reliance on top-down state action to solve all of society's ills.

I suppose that once you have nearly half a million members, it is difficult to maintain the same focus on core values but the Labour Party that I respected no longer appears to exist. Why that has happened is difficult to pin down but the indifference of its leadership to certain developments, not least Brexit, and their tolerance of some unacceptable behaviour within the party has not helped.

A case in point is the current row over anti-Semitism within Labour. Despite a number of half-hearted attempts to deal with this cancer that is eating away at his party, Jeremy Corbyn appears to be more concerned with maintaining a broad church rather than stamping out once and for all, the sort of unacceptable behaviour that is undermining his leadership.

The Guardian for example, reports that Corbyn has condemned the vilification and abuse of Labour MPs who attended Monday night’s demonstration against anti-Semitism in the party, but signs of a general clampdown are few and far between. The abuse continues:

The Skwawkbox, a leftwing blog, emailed several MPs, including John Woodcock, Ian Austin and Wes Streeting, challenging them to prove they opposed all racism in a way that implied their opposition to antisemitism was only a way of attacking the party leadership.

One email attacking Stella Creasy demanded evidence of Walthamstow MP “publicly denouncing Islamophobia, publicly denouncing racism towards black people or participating in demonstrations against Islamophobia and racism towards black and other ethnic groups”. Creasy says she is now having to deal with “organised abuse” at a local level.

Instead we get the chair of Labour's internal disputes panel, Christine Shawcroft, lending support to a candidate who has been suspended for anti-Semitism and then resigning once her e-mail has been leaked. She remains a member of Labour's National Executive Committee - more mixed messages.

This targeting of MPs who have quite rightly protested against anti-Semitism in Labour is unacceptable. Why would any party tolerate such behaviour? And yet Corbyn's condemnation is far from convincing as one commentator points out:

“It’s massively underwhelming,” Richard Ferrer, the editor of the Jewish News said. “He’s squandered a wonderful opportunity to speak to the Jewish community in a week when they needed it most.

As the paper points out, many MPs are still shocked by the strength of feeling demonstrated on Monday night against Labour’s failure to act on antisemitic conduct. Many of them want it to be a turning point for the party and the Corbyn leadership. Some believe it could be a potent symbol of the kind of government that an incoming Labour party would run – reminiscent of Tony Blair rewriting clause four as a token of his determination to run a centre-left government.

Does Corbyn have the focus and resolve to deal with this issue as decisively as Blair dealt with Clause Four? Very few believe that he has the cojones to do so, and I agree with them.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

And now divisions deepen within the Tory Party

I am currently reading Tim Shipman's book about the Brexit referendum 'All out war' which sets out clearly how the divisions within the Conservative Party over Europe that started to emerge under Margaret Thatcher hardened as the European project developed. He points out that three successive Tory leaders were brought down over Europe. The question is, could Theresa May be the fourth?

If this story in the Independent is any guide then our current Prime Minister is walking a very fine tightrope that could see her also cast aside over the issue of Europe. They say that the hardline Brexiteers in the Tory Party are getting bolder and more explicit in their threats against their party leader.

They report that Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned Theresa May she risks splitting the Conservative Party in two and could be ousted as prime minister if she breaks Tory backbench Eurosceptics’ red lines on Brexit:

The arch Brexiteer compared Ms May’s predicament to that of 19th Century prime minister Sir Robert Peel, who forced through the controversial repeal of the Corn Laws against the wishes of many of his MPs.

The move resulted in Peel being forced to quit as prime minister and the Conservative Party splitting, with the “Peelites” eventually joining forces with the Whigs and others to form the Liberal Party.

Asked about Brexiteers' demands after delivering a speech to mark one year until Brexit, Mr Rees-Mogg said Ms May would be risking similar consequences if she relies on Labour votes to get a final Brexit agreement through parliament without the support of her Eurosceptic backbenchers.

He said: “Let’s be frank: all the red lines have gone in the transition deal – there isn’t a red line left in that.

“The concern is whether the red lines will be in the final withdrawal agreement."

In a thinly-veiled threat, he added: “I’m sure the prime minister knows her history. I’m sure that she knows how Robert Peel got the repeal of the Corn Laws through. No Conservative leader would ever wish to get through so major a piece of legislation again on the back of opposition votes.

“I think the Government will stick to its red lines, because that is the political reality.”

It is this pressure that makes a hard Brexit more likely but also underlines why we need to redouble our efforts to get any deal ratified through a referendum.

If the price of averting disaster is another split in the Tory Party and Theresa May being ousted then so be it. The needs of the country must come first.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Open dissent grows within the Labour Party

It seems more prevalent on social media where a fierce argument is raging about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn culpability in that, but one cannot but get the impression that those who have a problem with the Labour leadership are becoming more vocal and being so in public.

The Parliamentary Sketch in the Independent contains a typical account of yesterday's events in which Labour MP, John Woodcock intervened on his own party leader after Corbyn had told the Commons chamber that he had been “a robust critic of the Russian govt for more than 20 years,” to claim that was not the case.

Amidst the howls of derision he permitted an intervention from one of his own MPs, John Woodcock, who told him what he was saying “is just not true”, and read an excerpt of an old Corbyn article in the Morning Star, warning “the West is in no place to take the moral high ground over Ukraine’s crisis”.

At the same time, outside the House of Commons, over the road on Parliament Square, hundreds of protesters, mainly Jewish but not all, had gathered to register their rage at Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis, the blame for which they lay at Corbyn’s door:

Stephen Timms was there on the green, the Labour MP for East Ham. So was Jonathan Reynolds, Labour MP for Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley, Longdendale and Dukinfield. And so were Peter Kyle, Neil Coyle, Wes Streeting, Chris Leslie, Margaret Hodge, Liz Kendall, Harriet Harman, Mary Creagh, Jess Phillips, David Lammy, to name just the ones I spotted, listening in quiet respect as speaker after speaker tore into their party and their leader.

Most of them were on their way to the traditional Monday evening meeting of Labour’s MPs in a committee room round the corner from the Commons. There, Wes Streeting, Luciana Berger, Yvette Cooper and others gave rage-filled speeches about Labour’s anti-Semitism problem, and the leader’s failure to deal with it.

It is a full-blown crisis. It doesn’t need to be said that all over the world, and throughout human history, marches on parliament, indeed protests against governments of any kind, tend to be just that – protests against government. People don’t gather on mass to protest against opposition. It is profoundly abnormal.

It does not look good for Labour unity at a time when a united official opposition is needed more than ever to hold the Government to account for the mess they are making of Brexit. Somehow the shine has been rubbed off Corbyn's leadership, and his ambivalence over the future of Britain's relations with Europe has come into sharper contrast as a result.

That just leaves the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP to properly scrutinise Ministers over Brexit and to fight for a deal (and a final say for the people) that will protect the country's best interests.

Monday, March 26, 2018

How Brexit will penalise us yet again

One of the benefits of being in the European Union is that it can tackle issues that transcend national borders. Outside that institution we are helpless to deal with companies in particular who are trading on a multi-national basis.

A good of example of that is mobile phone contracts. Last June the EU effectively abolished roaming fees for those of us who visit the continent. This did not just benefit holidaymakers but businesses as well. However, as the Independent reports, the decision of Theresa May to leave the “digital single market” means that roaming charges after Brexit will cost business people visiting the EU up to £778 a month.

Research by House of Commons officials puts the extra bill at £195 if foreign mobile companies exploit their new freedom to ramp up the price for local firms to use their networks. But the additional charges soar to £778 if those local mobile carriers also push up the cost for their customers to the maximum allowed before the cap.

The paper says that the expected fees are much higher than the £61 top-up run up by holidaymakers before the EU acted, because business travellers use so much more data. They consume 4.5 gigabytes (GB) for a typical six days abroad each month,  sending many hundreds of emails containing graphics, on video conferences and sharing work on social media, perhaps including videos and music.

This is yet another cost for business as a result of Brexit and of course, it will also add to the price that holidaymakers will have to pay for enjoying a break on the continent.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Why allegations of cheating by Vote leave doesnt change anything

It may be that I am growing cynical in my old age, or it could be that having been freed from the artificial gravity of the Cardiff Bay bubble and spending more time with 'real' people I just have a different perspective on things, but I am having real problems getting het-up about the latest revelations about data manipulation in countless elections.

It is not that I think that it doesn't matter, it does. If is absolutely crucial that for the public to maintain confidence in the democratic system all parties stick to the rules and don't try to buy success through the sort of manipulation we are now reading about daily.

On the other hand, if you talk to the man or woman in the street, not only is this subject low on their list of priorities but in many cases they will not see what the problem is. That is not because they endorse cheating, it is that they thought that politicians and their assorted hangers-on had been doing this sort of stuff for ever and a day, and that this is just one more instance of somebody being caught red-handed.

In other words, the reputation of politics and politicians is already so low that nothing surprises us anymore. It is a damning indictment of our democratic system and one of the main reasons why people voted for Brexit in the first place.

I have no more idea than the next person how we reverse that trend, except to prove them wrong through hard work and honest endeavour, because, yes, I am still a politician. But what is clear to me is that even if it were proved without a shadow of a doubt that Vote Leave had bought the referendum result through cheating, that disclosure would not change most Leave voters minds on whether we should leave the EU or not.

Important as it is to expose malpractice (and in doing so of course, reaffirming most people's cynical view of politics and politicians), we need to win hearts and minds by exposing the folly of the referendum decision and the impact it will have on people's lives and the UK's standing in the world, rather than obsess over process.

Brexit will raise the cost of living, it will add to child poverty, and it will hit our ability to produce our own food as a result of tariff barriers, a weakened pound and labour movement restrictions. It will leave the UK isolated in the world and at the mercy of the likes of Donald Trump for status and trade deals. And it will cause thousands of people to lose their jobs as companies relocate back into the EU and London loses its status as one of the financial capitals of the world.

Those are the consequences that will make people sit up and take notice. The only question left then is whether it will be too late to do anything about it?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Corbyn sacking of shadow minister highlights his ambivalence over Brexit

There is no better example of why those opposed to us leaving the EU cannot trust Labour to stand up and fight for the anti-Brexit cause than the sacking of the Shadow Northern Ireland Minister, Owen Smith by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday.

As the Guardian reports, Smith was dismissed from his frontbench role after breaking with Labour policy to call for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. The paper adds that Corbyn is believed to have taken the decision on the basis that Smith had not been a team player, and had repeatedly breached shadow cabinet collective responsibility on Brexit, including by calling for Britain to remain in the single market.

Owen Smith was absolutely right when he wrote in the Guardian on Friday, that the Labour party can only “serve democracy” by recommending a poll on the Brexit deal. “Labour needs to do more than just back a soft Brexit or guarantee a soft border in Ireland,” he argued. “We have the right to ask if Brexit remains the right choice for the country. And to ask, too, that the country has a vote on whether to accept the terms and true costs of that choice once they are clear.”

Corbyn has always been ambivalent on Brexit, but yesterday's sacking is a clear policy statement. Labour does not and cannot represent the views of those who want to stay in Europe. The only UK-wide party that takes a clear anti-Brexit position is the Liberal Democrats and those who want the people to have a final say on any deal should get behind us if they want to be part of an effective campaign for such a plebiscite.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Welsh UKIP leader indulges in childs play

Over at the New European, there is a report of the latest embarrassing episode for UKIP in Wales. They report that Welsh UKIP leader and disgraced former Tory Minister, Neil Hamilton has complained to the BBC over a light-hearted segment on Radio 4's World At One in which children were asked for their views on Brexit:

"The segment was completely biased and absurd," fumed Mr Hamilton, who once danced in a perspex box on TV while Johnny Vegas poured fish on his head.

"Every child who featured on the programme was anti-Brexit and the segment lacked any form of political balance. The interviewer, Tomos Morgan, failed to question any of the patently childish answers given to him."

It's a fairly strong argument from the man who, in 2006, recorded a World Cup song with his wife called England Are Jolly Dee.

Not content with just a letter, Mr. Hamilton decided to raise the matter in First Minister's questions in the Welsh Assembly, generating much mirth on all sides and some AMs placing their heads in their hands in despair. You can watch the actual question here.

Neil Hamilton: Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. As I was on my way to Cardiff yesterday, I was listening to the car radio, and the World at One was on, and, with some incredulity, I heard that the Welsh Government was consulting schoolchildren between the ages of seven and 11 for their views on Brexit—perhaps it shows the level of maturity of the Welsh Government on this issue—and was going to take their opinions into account in formulating policy. I can't believe that this is true, even though I read it subsequently on the BBC website. Amongst those whom I heard on that programme was a nine-year-old who said that she thought leaving the EU was a bad idea, because, 'One of my friends says she wants to be a singer, and if I want to go around the world to see different music, like, she won't be able to because we've left breakfast'—I think she must be a fan of the leader of the opposition's speech at the Conservative Party conference last year. Surely the First Minister must agree that this is an exercise in total fatuity.

Carwyn Jones: Does he have to use a nine-year-old to fight his battles? Are things that bad in UKIP now that he has to criticise the view of a nine-year-old? I can tell you that that view was more coherent than many of the views I heard from people in his own party in the course of the referendum. He seemed to complain that the news item was a 'mawkish puff piece', playing on the—. And I quote:

'playing on the emotions of the listener in order to support the Remainer narrative that the nasty Brexiteers are stopping our children from being able to play with their friends from abroad.'

Now, if that is the level of political debate that the leader of UKIP comes up with, then give me the nine-year-old any day.

Neil Hamilton: Well, actually, that particular reference—[Interruption.] Sorry, Llywydd. Actually, that particular reference referred to an 11-year-old's comment, also broadcast yesterday, where she said that, if we were to leave, a lot of people who have friends in Europe might not be able to get in. 'I'm aware that people can come into the country who may not always do good things, and they can do bad things, but, on the other hand, they do have relatives and friends. It's better to see them in real life than Skyping all the time and stuff.'

Well, these—[Interruption.] These—[Interruption.] It's not I who is bringing young children into the political debate. It's the politicisation of children that is the exercise that the Welsh Government in engaged on. Is it not inappropriate to politicise children in this way in order to pursue the Government's own political agendas?

Carwyn Jones: How does the leader of UKIP think that the parents of those children think of him now? What they will see is a politician in this Chamber belittling the views of their children for his own political purposes. Now, I don't know whether he is deliberately trying to alienate parents from voting for his party, but he's done an excellent job so far.

Neil Hamilton: It's not to belittle the views of children at all, but the level of maturity that is displayed in those comments of course reflects their age. Perhaps even the First Minister at that age was similarly immature; I don't know. But children of seven to 11, of course, are not yet mature, and their opinions reflect that—even though we all mature and then our opinions are worthy of being listened to, as serious comments in political debate, I find it absolutely extraordinary that the Welsh Government is now proposing to take them seriously. We know that teachers—[Interruption.] We know that political education in schools is important, but it's also important that there should be balance, and children should be taught to be critical. Given that the Times Educational Supplement, in 2016, did an opinion poll of teachers that showed that 88 per cent of them were pro remain—75 per cent of teachers; 88 per cent of university lecturers are pro remain—isn't there a danger that, even subconsciously, if political topics of a controversial nature are taught in the classroom that balance is likely to be lost?

Carwyn Jones: Let's see how many votes the leader of UKIP has managed to lose—the votes of teachers, the votes of parents, the votes of governors, the votes of grandparents, all because he's chosen, for reasons that go beyond me, to criticise the maturity of nine and 11-year-olds. We have spent our time in this Chamber, in all parties in fairness, talking about giving children a voice. Now, he's saying—and, David Melding, I heard him say it, and I think the comment is apposite—that children should be seen and not heard, which is exactly what the leader of UKIP is saying. Perhaps he may want to reflect on the fact, in managing to upset many thousands of people across Wales, that, actually, children do deserve a voice.

When UKIP start to belittle the views of children to make their point then it is clear that they have lost the argument. This was a new low from a politician who has built his career on such embarrassing lows.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Not taking back control after all

It doesn't really matter at all where the UK has its passport manufactured providing that the process is secure and good value for money, but that does not preclude us from sniggering at the embarrassment of the Brexiteers and their media cheerleaders at the news that the new, highly symbolic, blue British passports are to be made in Europe.

As the Guardian reports, changing the colour of the UK passport from the burgundy favoured across the EU is regarded by some Brexiters as a powerful symbol of Britain’s restored sovereignty. But it has now been reported that British firm De La Rue lost out to Gemalto, which is listed on the French and Dutch stock exchanges, in the race to win the £490m printing job.

As the Liberal Democrat’s Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, says: “The blue passport saga is turning into a farce. First it was established that we did not have to leave the EU to have blue passports. Now we learn that the passports will be printed by a foreign company. And to add insult to injury, we will pay over the odds for them because the value of the pound has fallen since Brexit and they will have to be imported.”

So much for taking back control.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How Brexit is threatening our security

According to the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, ministers are being 'worryingly complacent' about the complexity of issues to be negotiated with the EU regarding the future security of our country.

As the Independent reports, the committee believes that unless a deal is struck to maintain security and policing cooperation with the EU after Brexit, then the UK could be sleepwalking into a crisis. They say that there are “serious legal, constitutional and political obstacles” that mean an agreement will not be easy to reach, but failure to “urgently” resolve these issues will “seriously undermine” the UK’s security:

The committee said it was concerning that the EU has suggested the UK should lose its place on the Europol board until a deal is agreed, and accused the Government of being “worryingly complacent” about future data sharing.

The report said: “The Government appears to assume that the UK’s dominant role in Europol and other forms of cooperation will make it easy to secure a bespoke future security relationship with the EU, going far beyond any forms of third country involvement to date.

“This attitude, along with lack of planning for alternative scenarios, suggests that the Government is at risk of sleepwalking into a highly detrimental outcome.”

Failure to continue using the European Arrest Warrant and instead having to rely an earlier extradition treaty would be a “catastrophic outcome”, the committee said.

It called on the Government to begin negotiations on a security and policing treaty immediately, and said the UK should be willing to sacrifice its “artificial red lines”, including on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The committee point out that that failure to secure a continuation of the European Arrest Warrant would prevent British authorities from being able to secure the extradition of criminals from EU countries for trial in the UK. It highlighted the case of Zdenko Turtak, who beat and raped a woman in Leeds in 2015. He fled to his native Slovakia before being extradited to the UK under the European Arrest Warrant and jailed for 14 years.

MPs also warned that establishing a new extradition arrangement is likely to run into a series of “significant judicial and legal obstacles”, including the fact that some EU countries, such as Germany and Slovakia, have laws that prevent them extraditing citizens to non-EU countries.

Some of us have been warning about this for some time. Negotiations with the EU are not just about trade but security, aviation, nuclear materials, the impact on the NHS and agriculture and medicine licensing just to name a few. I see little or no indication that our ministers understand this, never mind that they appreciate the complexity and urgency of reaching an agreement.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Is it time to reform council tax?

The Guardian carries details of another interesting report by the Resolution Foundation in which they argue that Council tax is an outdated and regressive levy on households that should be scrapped in favour of a progressive levy on property. It is just a shame that they don't seem to understand that this matter is devolved to the Welsh Government and that it is not for UK Ministers to change the system this side of Offa's Dyke.

The thinktank argue council tax has become almost flat-rated in some areas to leave it resembling the much maligned poll tax of the early 1990s. Laura Gardiner, principal researcher at the foundation says that analysis shows that council tax has “only a very weak link to property values” which means that it is “highly regressive”:

“Someone living in a property worth £100,000 pays around five times as much council tax relative to property value as someone living in a property worth £1m. This is exactly the kind of result that opponents of the poll tax wanted to avoid and in stark contrast to income tax, which increases with incomes in a progressive way so higher earners pay a higher average tax rate,” she said.

The foundation say that the the 2017 reforms implemented in Scotland should be replicated elsewhere in the UK. That would involve increasing council tax rates in the top four bands, generating a little over £1bn. An alternative reform would be a “mansion tax” surcharge of 1% on the value of properties worth more than £2m and 2% on the value of properties above £3m, which would also generate just over £1bn.

These proposals very much mirror work carried out for the Institute for Welsh Affairs by Professor Gerry Holtham, which I reviewed here. In his paper Gerry Holtham described council tax as the ‘misbegotten offspring of political misjudgement and political cowardice’.

He argued however that because Council Tax is levied on property it is hard to avoid, it does not distort economic activity and it is easily understood. Its disadvantage is that it requires regular revaluations to remain relevant, something that only happened once in Wales and never in England due to the political fall-out:

As Gerry Holtham explains, property values, as assessed for these purposes are increasing at a much slower rate than house prices, so that the average council tax on the lowest band, whose properties are worth up to £44,000 amounts to nearly 1.9% of the value of the property. For properties worth over £424,000, the tax is just over 0.5% of capital value.

The solution proposed by the paper is not to throw out the tax altogether but to reform it so as to ‘smooth out the indexation’ and to consider introducing additional tax bands. Gerry Holtham argues that this would lead to gradual change and do away with the need for revaluation.

He argues that a fairer way to levy the tax would be to make it a flat rate plus a proportion of the value of the property, less a property allowance. That would yield similar revenue to the current tax where everybody would end up paying a fraction over 1% of the band value. In other words the tax would be rebalanced so that those in the most expensive properties would pay more.

He says that taxpayers in band D would pay a little more than a pound a week more, whilst those in band A would see their bills fall dramatically. This would lead to a fall in the cost of Council Tax benefit from £242m to just over £190m.

Gerry Holtham suggests that the increase in taxation for those in the higher bands could be ameliorated by other measures. These include removing the single occupant discount and increasing the tax on second homes, a measure already being proposed in the housing bill. In Gwynedd, 10% of the housing stock consists of second homes.

This solution is slightly more complex that the one mooted by the Resolution Foundation but seems to me to be more of a gradual change and one that has benefits both for those living in lower banded houses and also in helping councils and the Welsh Government tackle the rapidly increasing cost of Council Tax benefit.

Surely the time has come for a rethink of Council Tax.

Monday, March 19, 2018

An inauspicious start for the English Homelessness Minister

Yesterday's Observer carried a feature on South Derbyshire MP, Heather Wheeler, who was appointed as the English Minister for homelessness in January. To be fair there are a number of encouraging signs.

For a start, she is visiting projects in other nations of the UK to see how the devolved governments are coping with the problem. In doing so she recognises that Scotland is in a better position because it has more affordable homes in which to rehouse those in need and accepts that supply is a big obstacle to her brief to meet the Conservative manifesto commitment of halving rough sleeping by 2022, and eradicating it by 2027.

Unfortunately, as I reported here, she appears to be in denial as to whether her government will address this issue. It is all very well citing that the government are spending £9bn on affordable housing by March 2021, however when Communities Secretary Sajid Javid is being forced to “surrender” £72 million set aside to build affordable homes because it was “no longer required”, and when the emphasis is on intermediate housing available at 80% of market rent as opposed to the social rents needed by those escaping homelessness, the prospect of a solution to lack of supply does not look promising.

The other good sign is that Ms. Wheeler is seriously looking at the internationally successful housing first model that places the most entrenched rough sleepers in permanent housing before they deal with addiction, mental illness or other challenges. It works on the assumption that people make the most progress when in a stable home, rather than a hostel or shared temporary accommodation.

My concern though is that she appears to be in denial on all the causes of homelessness. Specifically, she tells the paper that she does not know why the number of rough sleepers has increased so significantly in recent years, adding that she does not accept the suggestion that welfare reforms and council cuts had contributed to the rise. I would add in the austerity agenda that has depressed real wages onto that list as well.

Frankly, if she is serious about achieving her goals then she needs to put this ideology to one side and convince her government colleagues to follow suit. If she doesnt then I suspect that the situation will continue to worsen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

New Brexit comic to be launched

Anybody who has been following the spoof Trumpton Twitter account will be delighted to learn from today's Observer that its progenitor, illustrator and author Mike Dicks is to launch a Brexit comic featuring some of the regular Twitter characters, including the Reverend May and her Brexit Gang, David Dealin’ Davis and Boris “Captain Brexit” Johnson.

The comic will go into circulation next month, loosely based on the classic 1960s children’s TV programme Trumpton. Mike Dicks has raised £4,400 via crowdfunding to pay for the first edition, which will be posted to donors and supporters by 1 April:

Dicks, a former independent TV producer, began with caricatures of Ukip leader Nigel Farage in the run-up to the 2016 referendum.

“I’d been worrying about him and Ukip,” Dicks told the Observer. “I kept thinking about how Farage was looking back to a golden age, but he’s about the same age as me, so what era is he referencing? My recollection of the 1960s and 70s was that in many ways it was a rather shit time.

“He made me think of Trumpton, which was about an old-fashioned town with no foreigners – except Mr Antonio the ice-cream man, who was almost run out of town – and an autocratic mayor. It seemed the sort of place and sort of Britain Farage was nostalgic about, so I started a Trumpton_Ukip Twitter account to gently mock him, his supporters and their backward-looking views. It had a couple of hundred followers at most, enjoying my silly jokes.”

The paper says that only 13 episodes of Trumpton were made, but many still remember Captain Flack’s fire brigade roll call: “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub.”

Dicks’s Trumpton has a different crew: “May, May, Johnson and Gove, Macron, Merkel and Mogg” – the two May characters reflecting the prime minister’s shifting position on Brexit.

Who was it who said that laughter is the best medicine? It certainly helps to have a sense of humour, a lesson that UKIP MEP David Coburn might want to take on board.

He was apparently unaware that the Trumpton UKIP account was a spoof and urged his 9,000 Twitter followers to complain about what he considered to be a “fake” UKIP account. He attempted to have it shut down, threatening to sue Dicks under European copyright laws.

“It suddenly went from a couple of hundred followers to 20,000,” Dicks said. “Then dozens of other Twitter accounts sprang up mocking UKIP and we were in the newspapers, so it all blew up in his face.”

This comic sounds like it is worth subscribing too.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Secret report on Carl Sargeant will not be published

The BBC report that Wales' most senior civil servant has refused to publish a redacted version of a report into whether the sacking of Carl Sargeant was leaked before a cabinet reshuffle.

She is concerned that to do so would have implications for future investigations, specifically it would prevent future witnesses from being totally candid if they thought their evidence were to be made public.

On the face of it that is a valid decision. I would expect nothing less from the Welsh Government's top bureaucrat. But politically it is a disastrous for the First Minister as it leaves the events around his disastrous reshuffle lost in a cloud of intrigue and speculation. That is evident from the reaction of the leader of the Welsh Conservatives:

Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies said: "This is simply unacceptable and bitterly disappointing. "The will of the National Assembly was clear and the excuses for not publishing the report are at best weak, and at worst plain obstructive."

He said the conclusion of the inquiry, which is repeated in the letter, "once again invites more speculation".

"The longer this facade continues the more damaging it is for the Welsh Government, and our democratic processes cannot continue to be marred by persistent stonewalling, particularly when matters of significant public interest are at stake," he added.

The facts appear to be that some journalists and lobbyists knew about the sacking of Carl Sargeant before it was officially made public, possibly before Carl was told. If there was no leak as the Permanent Secretary asserts then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the briefing was sanctioned.

Does the report address this point? If not, why not? And if it does, surely that fact and the name of the person who authorised the leak should be made public so we can make up our own mind as to its impact on Carl's state of mind and what such a process says about the way he was treated within government.

Friday, March 16, 2018

How Brexit has left the UK isolated and vulnerable

There was an interesting intervention in the ongoing saga of the Sergei Skripal attack in the Guardian yesterday, in which the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevičius is reported as saying that Russia sees the UK as increasingly isolated because of Brexit and is testing our strength, resolve and diplomatic links:

“Russia is always looking for weak points, and may feel the UK does not feel very strong,” he said in an interview. “The Russian assumption may be that in the process of Brexit, the UK is weaker in terms of its isolation, and due to Brexit the EU will not be very enthusiastic in backing the UK up.

“Fortunately that is not the case, and we will support the UK, but Russia acts by testing for reactions.”

There is also a message that Jeremy Corbyn and his spokesperson may wish to take on board with Linkevičius warning that Putin’s actions represented a threat to liberal democracy. “They test and deny. I am not asking for escalation, but if no clear messages are sent, Russia regards it as an encouragement to do more.”

So not only is Brexit leaving us reliant on an increasingly erratic US President for our trade links but it is also offering succour to our potential enemies by sending out all the wrong signals about the UK's place in the world.

Cat stops play

I have heard of football matches being stopped because of pitch invasions, even the odd streaker, but the latest incident must be unique.

As the BBC report, Turkish side Besiktas have been charged by Uefa after a cat wandered on to the pitch during the Champions League last-16 defeat by Bayern Munich. English referee Michael Oliver stopped play in the second half at Vodafone Park until the cat left the pitch.

The exact charge is "insufficient organisation", while the Turkish club has also been charged with "throwing objects and blocked stairways". The case will be heard by Uefa's disciplinary body on 31 May.

Bayern won 3-1 on the night and 8-1 on aggregate to progress to the quarter-finals and fans of the German club voted the cat as their man of the match.

I am surprised this has not happened before given the large number of cats on the streets in Turkey.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Corbyn splits Labour Party over his response to Salisbury attack

Like many people I found the performance of the Leader of the Opposition in responding to the statement on the Salisbury attacks to be absolutely astonishing.

Putting aside the tradition of MPs from all parties coming together to defend the UK when we are under attack, why was Corbyn using the Commons chamber to question basic facts when he has other avenues available to him.

As leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn is a member of the Privy Council and able to ask for detailed briefings on intelligence matters. If he did not avail himself of that opportunity and instead chose to use a public event to question the government's position, then he deserves all the disapprobation poured on him by all sides.

The Guardian editorial, already endorsed by one member of the Labour front bench sums it up perfectly:

Jeremy Corbyn invited Mrs May to acquiesce to Russia’s requests that a sample be sent to Moscow for verification – on the supposition that the Kremlin might then honestly try to match it with its own stores. He sounded too keen to find another explanation for the use of the nerve agent novichok in the attack.

There are many reasons to be wary whenever governments ask for cross-party support. Oppositions have a duty to challenge prime ministers in the most critical circumstances. Nations should not act in haste over such issues. But Mr Corbyn’s reluctance to share Mrs May’s basic analysis of the Salisbury incident made him look eager to exonerate a hostile power.

As the Independent explains, Jeremy Corbyn's position sparked a furious with Labour MPs who first stood to take an overtly different line in the Commons and then took action outside the Chamber to set themselves apart:

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was among those who differentiated herself from the leader’s position.

She said Russia’s actions must be met with “unequivocal condemnation”, while long-time Corbyn critic John Woodcock said: “This is a day for the House to speak as one for the nation, and (Ms May) will be reassured to hear that a clear majority of Labour MPs, alongside the leaders of every other party, support the firm stance which she is taking.”

Labour former minister Pat McFadden earlier told the Chamber: “Responding with strength and resolve when your country is under threat is an essential component of political leadership.

“There is a Labour tradition that understands that and it has been understood by prime ministers of all parties who have stood at that despatch box.

“That means when chemical weapons are used, we need more than words, but deeds.”

Backbenchers Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie and Stephen Doughty also made comments supportive of Ms May’s stance.

Nobody is suggesting that Corbyn should have accepted the intelligence without question, but at a time when the UK Government is taking action against Russia, I believe that his critics within Labour would have preferred a far more statesmanlike approach in which the Labour leader raised doubts and asked questions in private briefings and only spoke out when he was certain of his own facts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Are calls for England to boycott world cup opportunist nonsense?

I was very disappointed this morning to see otherwise very sensible politicians calling for England to boycott this year's World Cup in retaliation to the near-fatal attack on former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

Amongst those jumping on the bandwagon are former Lib Dem Leader and Blackburn Rovers fan, Tim Farron, and Aberavon Labour MP, Stephen Kinnock.

Of all the possible sanctions that could be imposed against Russia, this one is the most problematic - even if we do put to one side the concern whether England would be there long enough to make a boycott worthwhile.

I recall the attempt by Margaret Thatcher to persuade our athletes to boycott the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. She soon discovered that sports people have minds of their own and that this was not an area she had any control over.

Great Britain went to the games and took advantage of the USA's absence to return with 21 medals. I suspect that any attempt to put pressure on the English FA would lead to a similar snub.

England cannot stand alone in seeking to make a point of boycotting the World Cup. They would need other countries to follow suit and given the lukewarm response from Europe and the USA to Theresa May's outrage over the use of chemical weapons on British soil, joint action is unlikely.

A boycott by England alone would likely just increase Russia's chances of getting to the final stages and would be easily brushed off by Putin. I suspect nobody in Russia would even notice.

There are far more effective sanctions that the UK can take against Russia, some of which may even get support from the EU and the USA. Choosing an easy target like England's presence in the World Cup is just opportunistic nonsense. It is politicians seeking easy headlines. I for one am not convinced that it will be an effective or realistic option.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Brexiteer Trade Minister demonstrates why we need the EU

Has Liam Fox finally got it? Have we witnessed the biggest damascene conversion since St. Paul started the trend all those years ago? It is doubtful, but if our Brexiteer Trade Secretary cannot recognise the contradictions in his own position over US steel tariffs then he is even less self-aware than I had given him credit for.

As the Mirror reports, Liam Fox has highlighted to MPs how the muscle of the Brussels-based European Commission is key to the UK tackling Trump's 25% tax on steel imports.

The tariffs, which come into effect on March 23, will not apply to Canada or Mexico and other "real friends" may win exemptions. Britain could seek to get exempted, but that may only be possible after a Brexit transition ends in 2021. Until then, Dr Fox told MPs Britain must co-operate with the EU - and so he listed the wide range of actions Brussels would take:

Speaking in Parliament, he declared the EU could introduce immediate duties on the US, pursue a dispute at the World Trade Organization and "apply a safeguard measure" to protect steel and aluminium industries.

Dr Fox told MPs: "We do disagree with the US decision to implement tariffs on steel and aluminium imports based on national security considerations.

"These unilateral trade measures have weak foundations in international law."

He added: "The government has worked closely with the EU as part of our unified response...

"It is important that the UK and EU response works within the boundaries of the rules-based international trading system.

"Over the coming days, we will be working closely with British industry and the EU to seek swift clarification and mitigation."

The fact remains that when taking on the might of the US, the UK needs the European Union. We cannot depend on Donald Trump's unpredictable and mercurial largesse after Brexit.

Whilst we are part of a powerful trade bloc we have the clout to try and force the US to back down. Once we are out we will be buffeted by the economic winds of fortune, just like every other isolated country.

It really is time to reconsider and to hold that referendum on the terms of our leaving.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tories will not hand back Russian money

In the light of the shocking attack on former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia the news that the Tory Party has received £820,000 in donations from individuals linked to Russia has led to inevitable calls for them to repay the cash.

Amongst those demanding that the money be given back is Marina Litvinenko, the widow of murdered former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. She makes the very valid point that, “You need to be sure what kind of money these people bring to your country.”

The Conservatives have received more than £3m from wealthy Russian-born donors since 2010, including £826,100 from Russian-linked supporters since Theresa May became Prime Minister. They include Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Putin minister, who gave the party £253,950 in the year to September 2017.

New Century Media, which was paid by Moscow to promote a positive image of Russia in the UK in 2013, has donated £24,000 to the Tories since Mrs May became Prime Minister and £143,000 in all.

Despite this, and as the Telegraph reports, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, has dug his heels in and said that none of the £820,000 will be returned as he believes that it would be wrong to “tar them with Putin’s brush”:

Mr Hammond denied that Russia was “laughing at” Britain by doing business in London while attacking British citizens on British soil, though he admitted frustration at Britain’s failure to bring Russia to heel over the Litvinenko murder in 2006. 

He said: “Of course the Russians have not complied with their international obligations despite being members of the Security Council. They have continued to protect those who we seek to extradite in respect of the murder of Mr Litvinenko.”

There is no suggestion that the money has been improperly donated of course, but it remains to be seen how long the Tories can maintain this stance, especially if the attack in Salisbury is confirmed as coming from Russia and the UK Government retaliates with economic sanctions.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Is the UK Government seeking to roll back devolution?

The row over the list of powers the UK Government plan to 'temporarily retain' following Brexit is a rather dry discourse which is unlikely to create any ripples in the pub on a Saturday night, but it is important nevertheless because whatever the Brexit referendum gave the UK Government authority for, it did not give them carte blanche to roll back the devolution settlement.

Part of the problem of course is that devolution has not delivered all that was expected of it. The Welsh NHS is in crisis (as of course is its counterpart over the border in England), our economy continues to struggle to achieve any of the ambitions set out for it in 1999, and people still struggle to get onto the housing ladder.

There are explanations for this. Firstly, we should not associate the failings of the Welsh Government with that of the devolution process and, secondly, we are still very much in hock to the UK Government both in terms of macro-economic policy and funding.

That does not mean that successive Welsh Governments should not have done better, they should have. And because of those failings, it is difficult to engage even the most sympathetic observer in the Lilliputian-style dispute currently underway over powers.

Over on the BBC website, there is a list of the 24 areas the UK Government propose to pull back into its own legislative and administrative bosom. These include, Agricultural support, Animal welfare, Animal health and traceability, Genetically modified organisms marketing and cultivation, Food labelling, Food and feed safety and hygiene law and Public procurement.

These have some very real implications. Will Welsh lamb now be rebranded British lamb for example? Will the very specific needs of Welsh farmers be taken into account in devising a UK subsidy scheme and will the Welsh Government's current emphasis on the environment and diversification be continued?

Will the current ban on genetically modified crops in Wales now be overridden by the UK Government? Will they extend their failing badger cull across Offa's dyke? What will happen to the very specific 'scores on the door' approach in Wales to restaurants telling people about their hygiene standards? And how can the UK Government do a better job on public procurement in Wales when it's main interest is the English economy?

The UK Government has no right to assume control over these matters on what seems to be an indefinite basis. There should be agreement or the Welsh Government will be within their rights to do what they can to block this Brexit bill. In the meantime I will watch with interest how Welsh MPs vote on these clauses.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Could the increasing cost of energy have been avoided?

Over on the Guardian website, the Labour Party are making some pretty big claims about the huge hike in energy bills that we have all experienced over the last ten years or so. Their hypothesis is that the Conservatives have cost British households nearly £1,000 in extra energy costs over the past seven years by failing to stop electricity and gas firms raising prices.

The figures are quite stark. In 2010, a household with typical energy consumption paid £1,038 for an annual dual fuel bill. In 2017 it was £1,116, but in some years it has been more than £1,200. They say that figures from the House of Commons library show that if we add up the annual amount consumers have paid above the 2010 level the total cost to an average household is £957.

As a result the profits of the big six energy companies had continued to thrive, whilst around 2.5m households remained in fuel poverty. In reality of course things may well be a bit more complicated than this:

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Energy prices have gone up and down since 2010, driven by external factors including wholesale and network costs, and policies that have led to investment in networks, energy efficiency and low-carbon generation.

“Freezing energy prices would have meant a lack of important investment in infrastructure and would have damaged businesses when market-driven costs went up.”

The analysis assumed that energy use has remained constant when in reality it has been falling over the past seven years due to more efficient products. The real amount consumers have paid due to tariff increases is therefore likely to be lower than £957.

When I was an Assembly Member I consistently criticised energy companies for putting up prices to cover supposedly rising costs, whilst at the same time raking in massive profits. When costs fell, the cost to the consumer rarely, if ever followed.

It may well be that a price cap will make a difference, though the point about investment is well-made. However, the real problem it seems to me is the way the big six companies appear to operate as an oligopoly, complicated pricing structures that make it difficult for customers to shop around and the consequent lack of real competition in the market.

In that regard, we should not forget the role of Labour, when they were in government, of effectively creating this situation by allowing energy companies to coalesce into six large entities and to dominate the market in this way. This is not just a Tory problem.

Friday, March 09, 2018

No guarantee given on women's hostels

Fears about changes to the way that women's hostels are funded have not been allayed by the Prime Minister's refusal to guarantee their future during an interview for International Women's Day.

As the Independent reports, Theresa May has failed to rule out the closure of some women's refuges despite warnings from campaigners that her planned funding shakeup could threaten the future of shelters for women fleeing violent partners:

Domestic violence campaigners claim around a third of refuges could close if the plans go ahead, which would take short-term supported housing outside of the welfare system and hand funds to local councils.

It comes as the Government unveiled the Domestic Abuse Bill which contains plans for domestic abusers to be electronically tagged and banned from drinking alcohol.

Women's Aid said the bill was a “unique opportunity” to make a difference to survivors’ lives, but warned that it risked being undermined unless a “long-term, sustainable” funding plan for refuges is put in place.

I blogged on this in November 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.

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.

There are some real fears about how these changes will affect the funding of refuges.that need to be allayed. It does not help when the Prime Minister will not give assurances on their future.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Senior Civil Servant admits UK could lose trade on day one of Brexit

Over at the Daily Mirror, they report that the chief civil servant in Tory Liam Fox’s Department for International trade has admitted that Britain could suffer a “loss of trade” with around 40 countries when we leave the EU.

They say that Antonia Romeo told the Commons Public Accounts Committee that some agreements Britain benefits from because of EU membership may not be successfully rolled over even if Theresa May succeeds in agreeing a two-year transition deal after Brexit day. Whilst Mr Fox’s chief negotiation advisor, Crawford Falconer told the same committee countries are likely to ask for more favourable terms in return for continuing trade deals.

As the paper says, these comments will be a blow to Liam Fox who heads up the department of International Trade tasked with agreeing trade deals with non-EU countries post Brexit and who has already flown thousands of miles around the world begging for trade agreements only to come up against closed doors:

These latest revelations come after the International Trade Select Committee warned there was a “disturbing lack of legal clarity” on how to “roll over” or continue these trade agreements after Brexit.

There are also comments from EU Council President, Donald Tusk which raise questions over the UK's ability to secure a deal with the EU that will maintain frictionless trade. He warned that a "pick and mix approach is out of the question" as he accused the Prime Minister of trying to make Brexit a success "at any price".

The wheels really have come off the £350-million-a-week-for-the-NHS Brexit bus.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

More statues needed

As a society we have been too reticent to acknowledge the role of women in building our society and our polity. Perhaps that is because we have been so male-orientated at all levels that it has been difficult for those in positions of influence to acknowledge the underlying misogyny that permeates the corridors of power and to deal with it.

I am delighted therefore that there is now a movement to commemorate the role of women in society and their achievements and that this is starting with the unveiling of a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square next month. As the Guardian reports, in the centenary year of women’s suffrage, government money is also being spent on a new statue of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, who already has a memorial in Westminster, in Manchester.

There are many more women who should be celebrated in bronze, not just politicians but writers, artists and pioneers as well. That is why I support the call by Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his deputy, Tom Watson, who have teamed up with dozens of men, including high-profile actors, comedians and trade union leaders, to call for one of Britain’s earliest feminists to be memorialised.

They are among over 40 men signing a letter to the Guardian saying the time has come to break the “bronze ceiling” and celebrate the extraordinary life of Mary Wollstonecraft. The paper adds that signatories including Andrew Adonis and the Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Vince Cable, the actors Sam West and Jason Isaacs, and the union leaders John Hannett and Tim Roache argue that she was the “first to call for gender equality, over 250 years ago”. They say that Wollstonecraft, who has been described as Britain’s first feminist, challenged philosophers and politicians at the time when she set out a vision of equality in her book.

As we celebrate women's suffrage we should be unveiling more statues to female pioneers and leaders all over the UK not just to celebrate their achievements but to start conversations that will inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Government failures on civil liberties set to bite them again

One of the key principles of data protection legislation is that subjects should be able to know what information is held on them and be able to challenge its accuracy. That is the best way to ensure that data holders, often government agencies, make rational decisions based on the facts, rather than rely on innuendo and misinformation.

It is shocking therefore that the UK Government are seeking to introduce changes in its Data Protection Bill that aims to deny millions of people the right to access immigration data held on them by the Home Office.

Organisations representing up to 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and digital rights activists have written to the home secretary, Amber Rudd, giving notice that they will take legal action if a clause in the data protection bill is enacted. The threat is aimed at proposals in the bill to introduce an exemption for immigration information.

They believe that the clause would prevent those facing deportation from obtaining and challenging the accuracy of personal data held on them by the government:

The two groups – the3million, a grassroots organisation representing EU citizens living in the UK, and the Open Rights Group (ORG), which campaigns on privacy rights and free speech online – argue that the clause in the bill breaches the government’s obligations under the EU’s general data protection regulation (GDPR).

The bill will be debated in parliament on Monday. Rosa Curling, a human rights solicitor from law firm Leigh Day, which is acting on behalf of the3million and ORG, said: “The immigration exemption creates a discriminatory two‐tier system for data protection rights. The clause is incompatible with GDPR, as well as EU law generally and the European convention on human rights.

“If the exemption is made law, our clients will apply for judicial review. They have written to the government today to urge it to reconsider and to remove the immigration exemption from the bill without further delay.”

Jim Killock, the ORG executive director, said: “This is an attempt to disguise the Home Office’s mistakes by making sure that their errors are never found. When people are wrongly told to leave, they would find it very hard to challenge.

The Guardian say that immigration caseworkers have said that if clients can no longer access their Home Office files they will never discover why a residency application has been turned down and will be unable to challenge administrative mistakes. That is unacceptable.

Are the Government that desperate to meet their unrealistic immigration targets that they want to stack the law in their favour, against the principles of natural justice?

Monday, March 05, 2018

Ministers continue to demonise benefit claimants

Hopes that the largely unfair and arbitrary sanctions policy practised by the Department for Work and Pensions might be moderated have been dashed as a result of Ministers shelving a promised reform.

The Independent reports that a “yellow card” system, giving claimants 14 days to challenge a decision to dock their benefits on the grounds it was imposed wrongly, was pledged more than two years ago in October 2015. But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has now admitted that the move has been postponed because “an evaluation has proved complex”. No date for its implementation has been agreed.

At the same time the number of sanctions has started to rise again, due to an explosion in the number of punishments imposed on claimants of universal credit. The paper cites the example of one claimant who was recently docked benefits for missing an appointment to receive universal credit because he was in an operating theatre at the time.

The DWP later accepted it as a valid reason and issued a back payment but the damage had already been done as the loss of money resulted in the claimant being evicted.

In another similarly alarming case, a man on the Merseyside was sanctioned for missing a job centre appointment while he was in A&E. On that occasion, he pleaded with hospital staff to ring the job centre, fearing his benefits would be lost, but the sanctioning went ahead:

The warning system was first promised in October 2015 by Iain Duncan Smith, then Work and Pensions Secretary, who was under growing pressure from MPs.

He told MPs: “People are notified of a sanction and it is imposed immediately afterwards. In some cases, claimants go on to challenge the decision and the sanction may be overturned.

“We will trial arrangements whereby claimants are given a warning of our intention to sanction and a 14-day period to provide evidence of good reason before the decision to sanction is made.”

The trial, in parts of Scotland, led to almost 500 people successfully explaining why they did not deserve punishment after being accused of failing to meet their commitments in return for benefits.

A year ago, the DWP said claimants from the trial were being interviewed to compile a “final report” for publication in Spring 2017, but it never appeared.

Instead, Mr Field has now been told, in a written parliamentary answer, that “the finalisation of the evaluation has proved complex” and there is no date for publication.

Maybe if the Government stop obsessing with Brexit and got on with governing situations like this might not arise.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Trump declares war?

I suppose we should be grateful that the US President has so far only declared war on trade with the US. After all many were predicting worse, though there is still time. That is no consolation for the many thousands of workers whose jobs will be affected if Trump's threats come to pass.

As the Guardian reports, Donald Trump has escalated the threat of a trade war with Europe, warning that the US will slap a tax on cars made on the continent if the European Union (EU) retaliates against tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium:

The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the bloc was prepared to respond forcefully by targeting US imports such as Harley-Davidson motorbikes, Levi’s jeans and Kentucky bourbon whiskey.

On Saturday Trump hit back in typical style, writing on Twitter: “If the EU wants to further increase their already massive tariffs and barriers on US companies doing business there, we will simply apply a Tax on their Cars which freely pour into the US. They make it impossible for our cars (and more) to sell there. Big trade imbalance!”

In another tweet, the president railed against “very stupid” trade deals by earlier administrations and said other countries “laugh at what fools our leaders have been. No more!”

Trump has previously attacked car manufacturers in Europe, especially in Germany, with which the US has a huge trade deficit. Last year, in an interview with the German newspaper Bild, he criticised companies such as BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen for failing to produce more cars on US soil and threatened a border tax of 35% on vehicles imported to the US market.

Where the UK stands in all of this has yet to be seen. Steel produced here is exported to the USA in large quantities and a hiking of the tariff barrier could well impact on the future of British steel making. Whilst we are within the EU free trade area, we have some clout with which to try and force a climb-down by Trump. However, if we leave the EU we will be at the mercy of America's bigger economy.

In these circumstances we are better within the EU than out.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Decoding the politicians

It is rare for a politician to speak plainly, especially when the subject is one of huge contention in their party. We were lucky therefore to get any clarity at all from Theresa May's speech yesterday when she finally spelt out that the UK's access to the single market will be reduced after Brexit.

It was a speech nevertheless that sought to 'have its cake and eat it' as John Crace explains in the Guardian. In that regard it is unlikely to take us any further along in the negotiations with the EU. Many of May's red lines will have to be erased if she is to get a deal, not least those around the Northern Ireland border.

What struck me about John Crace's sketch however, was his highlighting of one particular phrase in the speech:

Having successfully spelled out at length all the reasons why leaving the EU was a terrible idea, May moved on to the details of how she planned to achieve her “Managed Ambitious Divergence”. Or MAD for short. Though what she really appeared to be doing was making a desperate plea to the EU for help. She wanted a customs union as long as it wasn’t called a customs union. She was happy with the European court of justice as long as it could be called the British European court of justice. So could the EU just accommodate her a bit and give her everything she wanted? And while they were about it, any ideas for resolving the Irish border problem would be gratefully received.

The idea that our approach to Brexit should be one of "Managed Ambitious Divergence" or MAD is such a gift to sketch writers and satirists that one has to wander if it was inserted into the speech by some malevolent aide without the Prime Minister's knowledge, as it is difficult to conceive of Theresa May having the wit to have done it herself .

In my day MAD as an acronym was attached to the nuclear arms race and stood for 'Mutually Assured Destruction'. Somehow it seems apt to resurrect it in this way.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Donald Trump shows that the Brexiteers' promised land is a myth

I have lost count of the number of interviews with key Government Ministers or Brexit cheerleaders where they have spouted their usual nonsense about Europe needing us more than we need them, and how leaving the EU will give us the freedom to negotiate trade deals all around the world, even though we would have far more leverage in those negotiations as part of a bloc of 28 countries than if we go alone.

I am also sick of hearing how Donald Trump, who seems to hate the EU as much as Nigel Farage (though the US President hasn't received the hundreds of thousands of pounds paid to the former UKIP Leader over the last two decades), will offer the UK a preferential trade deal that will compensate us for what we are losing by positioning ourselves on the wrong side of the EU tariff barrier.

The reality, of course, is very different. About 43% of UK exports in goods and services went to other countries in the EU in 2016—£240 billion out of £550 billion total exports. America is the UK’s second largest export market. It accounted for 19% of the value of UK exports in 2016/17. It is also the second largest import market in 2016/17. 11% of the value of our imports came from the US, compared to 53% from the rest of the EU.

But the idea that the USA is going to do us any favours after we leave the EU is a fantasy and not supported by the facts. Like every other country, their number one concern is their own self-interest. That was starkly underlined by Donald Trump yesterday when he announced a huge hike in tariffs on imported steel.

As the Huffpost website points out these tariffs will have a “significant impact” on the UK:

Richard Warren, head of policy at UK Steel, said the US was a significant export market for British producers.

He said the US was a “fairly significant” market, accounting for around 15% of UK steel exports.

“At the minute we don’t know exactly how these tariffs will be implemented, so we’ll have to wait until the official announcement next week,” he said.

“But the assumption, from what he said, is that it would be a blanket tariff of 25% on all steel products.

“It’s very big, considering the thin margins that larger steel operators will be operating to – 25% is a significant tariff.”

“This really does throw a spanner in the works.”

The Press Association reports that the European Union has indicated it could retaliate, potentially starting a trade war with the US:

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: “We will not sit idly while our industry is hit with unfair measures that put thousands of European jobs at risk.

“I had the occasion to say that the EU would react adequately and that’s what we will do.

“The EU will react firmly and commensurately to defend our interests. The Commission will bring forward in the next few days a proposal for WTO-compatible counter-measures against the US to rebalance the situation.”

In these circumstances we are far better within the larger EU market than trying to respond on our own. If only the Brexiteers could see it that way.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Defections underline Tory Brexit divisions

I don't suppose the Tories care much for what happens with their MEPs, after all they plan to abolish them within the next few years. However, what happens with the Conservative group in Brussels is important, if only because it highlights problems within Theresa May's party itself.

It is worth noting therefore that two British members of the European Parliament who were originally elected as Conservatives have defected to another, pro-EU parliamentary group allied with EU president Jean-Claude Juncker.

The Independent reports that Julie Girling and Richard Ashworth, who represent south west and south east England respectively, said they were leaving the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) “with immediate effect” to join the European People’s Party (EPP).

The EPP is the main centre-right group in the European Parliament and is allied with politicians such as German chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr Juncker, who was the EPP candidate for Commission president. The two MEPs say that they wish to remain members of the Conservative Party in the UK, but that the EPP best represents where they sit politically in Brussels.

Of course all the mess that led to David Cameron's disastrous decision to hold the Brexit referendum can be traced back to his decision to take the Tories out of the EPP in 2009 because of its pro-EU leanings and instead set up the ECR in a bid to appease eurosceptics within his party.

This short-term tactic was part of his campaign to become Tory leader and had nothing to do with any sensible strategic decision making either for the Conservative Party or the country. How big a mistake the decision was is best highlighted by the fact that the ECR group has received sustained criticism since it was set up for including unsavoury parties from the extreme and populist right.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?