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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The need for statutory youth services

I was a bit rueful this morning reading in the Independent that Labour propose to introduce legislation to guarantee "quality youth services for all young people", which would be overseen by a new national body with ring-fenced government funding. They envisage that this organisation would work with partners in every local area to fund services for young people, including youth centres, sports facilities, youth workers and counsellors.

This policy only applies to England, which is right and proper as that is how devolution works. However, it is also legitimate to ask why the Labour-led Welsh Government have not already done this?

That is especially so as I introduced a private members bill in May 2008 that would have made it a statutory requirement for local authorities to provide facilities and support for young people. My speech and the responses to it can be read here. This attempt was voted down by Labour at the first attempt and promises by the Minister to produce detailed guidance for councils petered out.

In my speech I said: 'Each local authority determines what level of provision they want to provide, and there are significant differences between authorities. I do not seek through this Measure to impose a standard level of youth provision across Wales. Each local authority area has unique needs and pressures. However, at a minimum, there should be a requirement on local councils to consult with young people and systematically plan and deliver services across their area to meet the needs of each community. My Measure seeks to impose that duty.'

I continued: 'Young people need to be treated with respect and trusted to fill their own leisure time. In my view, it is the role of statutory authorities to provide facilities to enable them to fulfil their potential and so enable them to learn how to interact with others and to take responsibility for their own lives.

A recent report commissioned jointly by South Wales Police and the Children’s Commissioner for Wales identified the benefits of a more universal youth provision as providing positive things for young people to do. This can include increasing confidence and competence among marginalised children and young people, the greater involvement of young people and other local residents in positive community-based activity, the better co-ordination of specialist services for children and young people, and improvements to the physical environment and provision of opportunities for economic regeneration.'

In the present climate, the fact that youth support services are not statutory makes them an easy target for cuts.

Many communities are crying out for better facilities to engage young people and enable them to use their energy constructively. If Labour are proposing that this is addressed in England, isn't it time that they picked up the cudgel in Wales too?

Monday, July 30, 2018

Second Labour MP targetted for confronting anti-Semitism

Hot on the heels of Margaret Hodge confronting Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons over anti-Semitism, the Independent reports that another Labour MP is to face disciplinary action for calling into question his party's record on this issue.

The paper says that Ian Austin, a former minister who lost family members in the Holocaust, was sent a letter from Labour bosses saying he was being investigated for “abusive conduct” in parliament, which could result in suspension from the party.

They say that the row stems from a "heated discussion" between the Dudley MP and Labour chairman Ian Lavery on the party's new code of conduct, which has prompted a major backlash in the Jewish community:

Labour has become embroiled in a bitter row over changes to its party rulebook, which centre on whether it should adopt in full an internationally recognised definition of antisemitism.

The party faced a major backlash from the Jewish community when its national executive committee (NEC) voted to adopt a code that did not directly include four of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) 11 examples of anti-Semitic behaviour.

Party officials insist these examples are covered elsewhere in the document, which “expands and contextualises” the definition.

Mr Austin, a vocal critic of the Labour leader, said the party had become "more extreme" during Mr Corbyn's tenure and accused him of "supporting and defending" anti-Semites.

He denied "screaming abuse" but told the BBC's The World this Weekend said: "I said that I thought the NEC's decision was a disgrace.

"Am I upset about antisemitism? Yes I am. I am upset about that and I'm upset as well about the leadership's failure, I think refusal really, to deal with this properly.

"I grew up listening to my dad tell me how he'd escaped from the Holocaust and how his mum and sisters were murdered in Treblinka [the concentration camp] and that led to me joining the Labour Party as a teenager determined to fight racism. 

"I'm really shocked that a party that has got a proud tradition throughout its entire existence of fighting racism has ended up causing such huge offence and distress to the Jewish community in Britain." 

Considering that they are trying to put the anti-Semitism row behind them, Labour are doing a really good job of digging themselves even deeper into the hole they have created for themselves on this issue.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Brexit threat to diabetes patients

After outlining Government inaction on key Brexit issues yesterday, more than a year after these problems were highlighted, it is no comfort to read in the Independent yet more consequences of a hard Brexit, this time for those suffering from diabetes.

The paper quotes the chair of the UK medicines regulator as warning that millions of diabetes patients, including Theresa May herself, could be “seriously disadvantaged” if supplies of insulin are affected by a no-deal Brexit.

Sir Michael Rawlins, who chairs the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), said the UK imports “every drop” of insulin, a vital medication used by some 3.7 million people to manage the chronic condition. He has called on officials to ensure drugs do not run out if the government fails to secure a deal with Brussels.

Minister have announced that plans are in motion to stockpile drugs, medical devices and blood products in the event of a no deal, as speculation over such a scenario grows. However, in the long-term, if we are not able to import drugs such as insulin the UK needs to start manufacturing its own supply. That will take time to set up.

As deadlines approach and no agreement appears to be the likely outcome of talks, these issues are going to come more and more to the forefront. That is why we need to rethink this whole approach and allow the voters to decide if this is really the path we want to go down, once there is something to vote on.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Will Brexit be worse than expected?

There was an interesting article in the Independent almost a year ago today by Steve Bullock, somebody who worked at the UK Representation to the EU from 2010-2014 where he negotiated several EU regulations for the UK in European Council working groups. He has also worked for the European Commission and the Department for International Development’s Europe Department. So it is fair to say that he is an expert, not that that will impress Michael Gove.

Many of the points he makes have already featured on this blog but it is worth repeating them again. Indeed I covered this article at the time. So where are we a year later?

Steve Bullock's central argument is that the level of complexity involved in Brexit is unprecedented. He believed that Ministers have inserted their heads firmly into the sand, hoping tricky problems will just go away.

He suggested that due to this complacency, we are facing a breakdown in airline safety, medicine, animal welfare, security, international aid and so much more.

He pointed out that leaving the apparently obscure Euratom Treaty will jeopardise not only the UK nuclear industry, but also the supply of medical isotopes for cancer treatment, that the work needed to establish a new customs IT system is unlikely to be done in time and that UK airlines like easyJet may need to set up in the EU27, whilst Ryanair might move its planes to EU27 countries due to the UK leaving the Open Skies Agreement.

The point of contention for the UK Government of course is whether the UK will stay under the auspices of the European Court of Justice, which plays a central role in overseeing these international agreements. Theresa May and her Brexiteer fellow travellers do not want to retain any connection to this court and that is going to prove disastrous for the UK. Steve Bullock expressed his own frustration in the article:

There are literally hundreds of such issues where the effects of Brexit will be detrimental to the UK. All of these have to be resolved in Brexit negotiations, or mitigated by the UK Government. I worked on and in the EU for 12 years, but issues that had never even occurred to me come up all the time. For example, while we are becoming aware of the impact of leaving the Open Skies Agreement on the aviation market, few have spotted Brexit’s impact on aviation safety.

The UK does not have its own capacity to do things like certify maintenance facilities if it leaves the European Aviation Safety Agency. Yes, you heard that right. The UK won’t be able to certify the people that fix the planes. As with so many of these issues, the UK will either have to negotiate to remain in the agency (which is within the dreaded European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction), or establish its own capacity to replace what it does from a standing start in only 20 months.

How will the UK remain in the EU’s internal energy market post-Brexit as it looks to import more energy from the EU, and what are the implications if it doesn’t? What about the Emissions Trading System? Patents and intellectual property rights? Food standards? Medicine approvals? Europol? The list goes on and on.

Charitably, he attributes these failings to an inability to listen to experts. He wonders whether information is getting through to Ministers. My view is that the UK Government was and is frozen by its own indecision and divisions and has proved itself incapable of taking the decisions needed to secure the future prosperity of our economy.

What is really frightening is that a year after this article was written we are no further forward. None of the issues highlighted by Steve Bullock appear to have been resolved. We are careering towards the exit with no plan, no contingencies and no idea what the consequences of this government incompetence are going to be.

If, on 25th July 2017 Brexit was looking ropey, today it is looking catastrophic.

Friday, July 27, 2018

UK Cabinet abandons principle of supporting International Law

The Guardian reports that Human rights campaigners have challenged the prime minister in the high court, accusing her of abandoning the longstanding principle that members of the government should be bound by international law.

The paper says that campaigners from the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) argued in court that ministers had abandoned their commitment to abide by international law after quietly rewriting the ministerial code in 2015:

The code has been in existence since 1997 and sets out the standard of conduct expected by ministers.

The previous code, issued in 2010, said there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”.

In the current version the sentence has been edited to say only that there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.

Critics have said changes to the code had far-reaching implications for the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world.

Although this may seem like a fairly minor change it has far-reaching consequences. As the Guardian says, key issues affected by the change could include decisions about whether to go to war or use military force, any decision made by an international court about the UK and any laws not incorporated into English law, such as human rights legislation and the Geneva conventions. The GCHR have laid out in detail some of the implications of this change:

Sue Willman, a partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn which is representing GCHR, said: “International law is vital not just for our government to be held to account but to ensure that their decisions do not suggest complicity with oppressive governments around the world.”

Melanie Gingell, a member of the GCHR advisory board, said: “Over the past few years, the UK government has sought not only to downplay its own human rights obligations but also to wilfully ignore the violations of their allies in the Gulf. These are states that are systematically abusing their own people.

“The ministerial code is vital to ensure that decisions by UK ministers do not contribute to those abuses. The phrase deleted underpinned the government’s respect for human rights and international law on everything from torture, freedom of speech, respect for women’s and children’s rights to fighting corruption and bribery.”

Although the Government's lawyer has argued that there no examples of Ministers breaching international law, the Prime Minister of the day must have anticipated circumstances where such a breach would happen.

So much for the UK providing moral leadership to the rest of the world.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Tory MEP invokes Treason Act against pro-EU remainers

It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at yesterday's outburst by the obscure and little-known Tory MEP, David Bannerman, who suggested that Britain’s Treason Act should be updated to apply to citizens who are “working undemocratically against UK through extreme EU loyalty”.

A former Conservative Councillor in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Bannerman was originally elected to the European Parliament as a member of UKIP but rejoined the Conservatives in 2011. He is a distant relative of former Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman who led the Liberal Party to a landslide victory over the Conservatives in the 1906 General Election. Henry must be spinning in his grave at the illiberal activities of this particular Bannerman.

Bannerman told the Guardian he was referring to those who might leak confidential information that would damage Britain’s interests after Brexit.

He tweeted on Wednesday: “It is about time we brought the Treason Act up to date and made it apply to those seeking to destroy or undermine the British state. That means extreme jihadis. It also means those in future actively working undemocratically against UK through extreme EU loyalty."

As the paper says, condemnation was swift and cutting:

Among those criticising Bannerman was the broadcaster Gavin Esler, who is chancellor at the University of Kent. He tweeted at the MEP: “Unfortunately your comment equating support for the EU with jihadis and treason requires no exaggeration – merely an apology to half the population who are sick of such Brexcrement. Since you are sucking on the euro-teat as an MEP have you no shame?”

Virendra Sharma, the Labour MP for Ealing Southall, accused Bannerman of “putting a knife into free speech”.

“One of the best things about this country is the range of opinions that help diversify our political debate. David Bannerman should think long and hard about his spiteful populist rhetoric,” said Sharma in a statement issued by the pro-remain campaign group Best for Britain

Irrespective of how Bannerman seeks to spin his tweet, the fact is he has equated the 48% of voters who cast their ballot to remain in the EU with jihadis and called us traitors.

An apology is called for but also the Conservative Party need to be asking itself if it wants to be represented by somebody with these views? Does this man even deserve to hold a position in public life?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Will food rationing be a consequence of a no deal Brexit?

There have been a lot of bizarre and sometimes disturbing admissions and revelations over the last two years regarding the Brexit shambles this government has created, but the extraordinary confirmation by Dominic Raab that the government is making plans to stockpile food in case the negotiations fail shows the extent of the mess we are in.

As the Independent reports, the new Brexit secretary promised to ensure “there is adequate food supply” if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, telling MPs the task would be overseen by industry, rather than Whitehall, but he refused to go into any further detail.

He told the Brexit Committee that “technical notices” in the coming months would set out the preparations to keep supermarket shelves well stocked:

Mr. Raab argued: “It would be wrong to describe it as the government doing the stockpiling. And, of course, the idea that we only get food imports into this country from one continent is not appropriate.

“But we will look at the issue in the round and make sure there is adequate food supply.”

The Brexit secretary added: “I’m not going to give more detail until I can set it out in a responsible and full fashion.”

Mr. Raab acknowledged the “uncertainty we would face” in the short term, if the UK left the EU without a deal, but insisted: “Long term, we would still be able to thrive.”

And he refused to repeat his predecessor’s David Davis boast that a full trade deal could be agreed with the EU by exit day next March, saying: “That would be a challenge, but one that I’m up for.”

At long last, we are getting some idea from Government MInisters of the disaster that faces us when we drive off that Brexit cliff. What we are not getting, however, are any solutions. Dominic Raab has not outlined any solutions or even said how he will guarantee food supplies.

Is the Government planning on reintroducing rationing? We need to know.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Labour MP vows not to be silenced in anti-semitism row

The row over Labour's code of conduct on anti-semitism continues to drag on with lawyers for Dame Margaret Hodge yesterday accusing the party of making a “veiled attempt” to silence her after her confrontation with Jeremy Corbyn over antisemitism.

The Times reports that Dame Margaret has been told she faces an internal disciplinary investigation after her spat with the Labour leader at which she accused him of being antisemitic.

Hodge denies swearing at Corbyn and cites multiple witnesses who she says can testify to that effect. The paper says that Dame Margaret, who is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust, also stands by her actions in confronting Corbyn, saying that he had crossed a “bridge too far”:

“I have always in the past disagreed with the people who have called him an antisemite but, at the end of the day, people have to be judged on what they do and not what they say. They have to be judged on their actions and not their words,” Dame Margaret told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I think what has happened over the last months — from failure to respond to antisemitism against Labour Party members, from failure to respond to the massive demonstration, unique demonstration by the Jewish community, culminating in the failure to adopt in full the universally used definition of antisemitism is just a bridge too far.”

She vowed to remain in the Labour party to fight against antisemitism, equating the current row with her battles against the BNP.

“I have been in the party for so long,” she said. “I fought the British National Party, this is all about my identity and my values.

“I could have had time off when I was fighting the BNP [for her Barking seat in 2010] . . . my husband had just died, but it was important to fight. This is the same . . . I will fight from within the Labour Party.”

Dame Margaret said she had received a wave of antisemitic abuse since the clash, including being called a “Zionist bitch” and told she was “under the orders of my paymasters in Israel”.

The former minister said she received a disciplinary letter within 12 hours of speaking to Mr Corbyn.

“Think how long it has taken for the Labour Party to respond at all to any of the allegations of antisemitism,” she added.

The Labour leader has a fight on his hands over the disputed definition of anti-semitism with the Parliamentary Labour Party preferring the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance version. This row is not going to go away soon.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Is the government about to renege on its promises to restaurant staff?

I have been writing about the way that restaurant staff are exploited by big chains through their tipping policies since 2008 with a number taking a cut of any tips added onto the bill and paid with credit cards in particular.

In 2016, the Government announced plans to end unfair tipping practices and ensure additional payments for service are voluntary to the consumer, and received by workers in full. These included updating the current voluntary code of practice, increasing transparency for consumers to make it clearer that tips are discretionary, and preventing or limiting any employer deduction from tips, except for those required under tax law.

However, as I wrote only a few months ago, the promised action was still pending. Now the Independent, who started the original fair tipping campaign, reports that Ministers have been accused of breaking their promises to these low-paid workers amid claims they have quietly dropped plans to ensure restaurant and bar staff are not being exploited.

They say that despite Tory ministers having pledged to take action to protect staff, a response to a freedom of information request has revealed the business department does not appear to have even started work on a response, prompting claims it has ditched the plans. Apparently, they are still considering options:

The latest row comes after staff at restaurant chain TGI Fridays staged a series of walkouts over what they said was the company’s unfair tips policy.

Waiting staff at the American chain were told that 40 per cent of the tips they receive via credit or debit cards would be taken from them and given to kitchen staff, instead of the chain giving the latter a pay rise.

The Unite trade union, which represents bar and restaurant workers, said this would cost some waiting staff £250 a month and organised protests outside 30 of the chain’s restaurants.

The paper says that despite many companies having responded to public pressure to change their policies, some continue to keep a cut of staff tips for themselves. Others, including Italian chain Strada, take a proportion of tips paid on a card as a “handling charge”.

They add that some firms, including Jamie Oliver’s Italian chain, have also been found to charge waiting staff a proportion of the bills paid by the people they serve, which is then distributed to other staff.

Nothing better illustrates the priorities of this government than their failure to act to protect these low paid workers.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Is the Electoral Commission for purpose?

Since it was established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 the Electoral Commission has impressed by just how unimpressive it has been.

Those of us involved with elections, whether as candidates and politicians or as administrators have seen many instances where their judgement and understanding have been drawn into question. For me it was their failure to properly administer the 2011 Assembly Election, when the names of candidates on party lists were kept off the ballot paper and promises to have them posted in polling stations instead were not kept.

It is little wonder then that the Commission's responsibilities have been scaled back over the years, but when it comes to their main role of ensuring fair play in elections they have either proven to be not up to the job, slow to act, or just lacking the teeth to do the job effectively.

I very much support therefore, the call by more than 40 cross-party MPs to beef up the Commission's powers after the official Brexit campaign was fined and reported to the police over breaches of spending laws. The Electoral Commission imposed a £61,000 fine on Vote Leave and referred David Halsall, the campaign’s “responsible person”, to the police for making false declarations of campaign spending, after it was found to have coordinated illegally with BeLeave, another Brexit group. The Independent reports:

In a letter to John Bercow, who chairs the speaker’s committee on the Electoral Commission, MPs said the findings show democracy could be “vulnerable to tampering and manipulation” and the watchdog needs tougher powers to restore public faith in the electoral system.

It comes amid calls from senior MPs for the Brexit referendum to be “rerun” after the sanctions against Vote Leave. Vote Leave said the electoral commission’s findings were “wholly inaccurate”.

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who helped to coordinate the letter, said the watchdog was an “analogue regulator in a digital age” and warned that “dark money and dark data” could flood the system without reform.

The suggested reforms include allowing the Electoral Commission to impose unlimited fines and to refer breaches to specialist police officers to investigate.

MPs also called for campaigns to be forced to declare their spending online, and outlined the need for tougher regulation for digital political advertising – something the commission itself has backed. “Until these reforms are instituted, our democracy will remain susceptible to future abuses like these,” the letter said.

“Looking ahead, we cannot in good conscience have another election or referendum without ensuring our polls are free and fair.”

Mr Kinnock said the democratic system was under attack from a mixture of foreign influence and abuses of the laws, describing the Vote Leave result as the “thin end of the wedge”.

The threats to our democracy are many and those seeking to subvert the process are using more and more sophisticated methods to cheat and to influence the result. If the regulator is not fit to deal with these threats then they need more powers and better sanctions.

They could also do with being more savvy about the methods being deployed to undermine our democracy so as to try and pre-empt the interference in the first place.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Ireland underline the reality of a no deal Brexit

The warning from Ireland's Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, that, in the event of a disorderly exit from the European Union, British airlines could be banned from Irish airspace has helped to focus minds on what happens if the divided and shambolic UK Government fails to agree a deal with the EU before we exit on 29 March 2019.

As the Independent confirms, at present the UK benefits from “open skies” rules, which allow EU airlines to fly between and over any European airspace. But unless an aviation agreement is reached before the final departure date, then Civil Aviation Authority rulings will not be recognised and insurance companies will cease to cover flights.

Irish air space is absolutely crucial in civil aviation terms. London is the main European hub for transatlantic aviation, and most flights to and from the US East Coast, including Boston, New York and Washington DC, fly over Irish airspace. In addition, Ryanair could be seriously affected. Europe’s biggest low-cost airline has its largest hub at Stansted airport.

All of this is still up for discussion and agreement of course, but the stakes are high. The UK cannot afford a no deal Brexit.

Friday, July 20, 2018

A question of trust

The House of Commons whipping system is an esoteric subject at the best of times. It is hardly the subject of debate and controversy in living rooms up and down the country, and yet the pairing of MPs during crucial votes is essential to the successful running of the Government.

That is because pairing is not just used to cover for sick and pregnant MPs or because of travel problems, it also allows Ministers to get on with their jobs knowing that their absence during a division will not threaten the government's majority.

In the circumstances then, the decision of the Tory Chief Whip, Julian Smith to encourage paired MPs to break the agreement they had entered into and walk though the lobby in Tuesday's critical votes was not just a breach of trust, it was foolhardy in the extreme. He secured a short-term gain in exchange for trashing a system that could keep Theresa May in Number 10 Downing Street for longer.

It is little wonder that outrage is being expressed on all sides. That is especially so when, as The Times reports, claims by Smith that it was a cock-up are being disproved by those who were there.

The paper says that Julian Smith told a rival chief whip that he deliberately intended to break the pairing system in Tuesday’s critical vote:

Mr Smith, the Conservative chief whip, was already facing calls to resign this morning after The Times revealed that he urged three Tory MPs to abandon pairing arrangements shortly before the key vote on the customs union.

News of the further admission — that Mr Smith openly admitted he wanted to abandon a key parliamentary convention for a vote he faced losing — has further damaged his credibility among rival whips, with whom he must continue to work, and Tory MPs. The leak of information from a conversation between two chief whips underlines the extent to which the system has broken down.

As Lib Dem MP, Christine Jardine, says: “These allegations completely undermine the trust on which the pairing system depends. Cynical abuse to get the government through a difficult day is a sure fire way to corrode that trust. This situation is so serious that Downing Street can keep the system or they can save their chief whip. They can’t do both. 

“There are so many questions the Tories still need to answer. The chief whip must come to parliament and be held accountable. Ultimately, if Andrea Leadsom and the prime minister have misled the House, this is a crisis. It is unclear how many more crises this threadbare government can withhold.”

If Theresa May does not act to remove Smith from his post as Chief Whip then her government will find it even more difficult to function effectively in future.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Labour dig a deeper hole for themselves over anti-semitism charges

The on-going row within Labour over their stance on anti-Semitism took an ugly turn yesterday with party officials saying that action will be taken against a senior Labour MP after she had a blazing row with Jeremy Corbyn.

As I have posted previously, this internal row has been sparked by the party’s ruling executive adopting a new code of conduct that defines antisemitism differently from the more broadly accepted meaning of the word.

Although Labour's new code of conduct explicitly states “antisemitism is racism” and is “unacceptable”, it stops short of signing up in full to the definition of antisemitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

As the Independent reports, Dame Margaret Hodge challenged Corbyn behind the speaker’s chair in the House of Commons following a crunch vote on Brexit. It was reported Dame Margaret told him: “You’re a f****** anti-Semite and a racist ... You have proved you don’t want people like me in the party.” Corbyn reportedly told her: “I’m sorry you feel like that.”

Obviously feelings are running high and the intemperate reaction of Margaret Hodge is a reflection of that. However, in pursuing disciplinary action against her, Labour risk having the controversy dominate whatever agenda they happen to be pursuing at the moment.

It is little wonder that the party has lost the support of much of the Jewish community and is struggling to nose ahead of the abysmal and divided Tory Party in the polls.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Did Vote Leave break the law and what should happen to the Cabinet Members who were involved in this organisation?

The rather toothless Electoral Commission has finally made a decision and fined Vote Leave £61,000 and reported them police after finding “significant evidence” of coordination with another campaign group, BeLeave. This is not some technical finding, this is an allegation of law-breaking which directly influenced the referendum result two years ago. The Guardian reports:

The watchdog said it had imposed punitive fines on Vote Leave because it said the group had refused to cooperate fully with its investigation and declined to be interviewed. Its former chief executive, Matthew Elliott, had previously alleged it was the Electoral Commission that had refused to cooperate. Vote Leave called the findings “wholly inaccurate”.

The commission’s long-awaited report said it had found evidence BeLeave spent more than £675,000 with the digital data company Aggregate IQ coordinated with Vote Leave, which should have been declared by the Brexit campaign group.

Vote Leave, which was the official designated campaign for Britain to leave the EU during the referendum, fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, exceeded its legal spending limit of £7m by almost £500,000, the watchdog found.

Darren Grimes, the founder of BeLeave, and the Vote Leave official David Halsall have been reported to the police. Vote Leave has been fined £61,000 and Grimes £20,000.

The commission said it had shared its investigation files with the Metropolitan police to investigate whether any other offences had been committed outside the watchdog’s remit.

Obviously, we now need to wait for the police to complete their investigation but it is nevertheless worth reflecting that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were the heads of this campaign, whilst Dominic Raab, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling and Andrea Leadsom also sat on the Vote Leave campaign committee. It seems like half the cabinet is implicated in this investigation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Meanwhile, in the category of 'you couldn't make it up if you tried'

Ronald Reagan will be spinning in his grave. The 45th President of the United States of America standing alongside the leader of what Reagan might still term the 'evil empire' or at least its successor, siding with Russia against his own intelligence agency.

This is the same US President who only five days ago accused Germany of being a 'captive of Russia.'

Now, after a face-to-face meeting with President Putin, Trump has stood up in front of the world's media and defended Russia over claims of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In doing so he contradicted US intelligence agencies, saying there had been no reason for Russia to meddle in the vote.

US intelligence agencies concluded in 2016 that Russia was behind an effort to tip the scale of the US election against Hillary Clinton, with a state-authorised campaign of cyber attacks and fake news stories planted on social media.

As the BBC report, this has proved to be a bit too much even for his allies:

In a strongly-worded statement, US House Speaker Paul Ryan said Mr Trump "must appreciate that Russia is not our ally".

"There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals," he said, adding that there was "no question" Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.

"The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy."

Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr Trump had sent the Kremlin a message of US "weakness".

He tweeted: "Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections."

Fellow Republican Senator Jeff Flake - a staunch critic of President Trump - called his words "shameful".

It is clear now that under Trump, the USA is not a reliable ally. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves by leaving the EU, and in so doing putting ourselves at the mercy of the USA for a trade deal and future influence.

If this episode does not underline that the UK's future lies with Europe, then nothing will.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Pressure for a referendum on final deal grows

Theresa May is now fighting on two fronts over her Brexit white paper, after former education secretary, Justine Greening joined the Liberal Democrats in calling for a referendum on the final deal.

As the Guardian reports, Greening has become the most high profile Conservative to endorse the idea of a referendum, to end what she said would be a likely parliamentary deadlock over Brexit. She warned that Theresa May’s Chequers plan did not represent “a workable compromise” that a majority of MPs could get behind:

The former education secretary and remain supporter said that May’s plan was “a fudge I can’t support” and, in a blow to the prime minister, said it amounted to “the worst of both worlds” – complying with EU rules without the influence of being a member of the multi-country bloc.

Writing in the Times, the MP for Putney said that “only solution is to take the final Brexit decision out of the hands of deadlocked politicians”.

She added that voters should be given three options on the ballot paper, and a first and second preference vote to ensure that the preferred model achieved more then 50% of the final vote.

The choice should be between “the PM’s final negotiated Brexit deal, staying in the EU, or a clean Brexit break and leaving with no deal”, Greening wrote in a break from her party’s position that is likely to be picked up by the campaign groups seeking to overturn Brexit with a second referendum.

Unhappiness from the Tory right over May’s proposed Brexit deal, and their threats to vote it down when a promised meaningful final vote is put to parliament around the turn of the year, have prompted growing speculation that the prime minister may struggle to ensure whatever she negotiates will be approved by parliament, placing Britain’s future relationship with Europe in limbo.

The idea that such a referendum might be settled through preferential voting on three options of course needs a bit of work. After all, if there is a deal to be voted on then why bother putting up an option of 'No deal', when the obvious alternative is to stay in the EU.

A third referendum (for that is what it will be if we count the one in 1976) should present two clear choices, a deal to leave or to stay in. And Justine Greening is right that Parliament can no longer credibly resolve this issue. A vote of all electors started this, let us finish it.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Is public opinion swinging in favour of legalising recreational cannabis?

The Independent reports that a new poll indicates that the majority of the British public now back the legalisation of cannabis so that it would be sold in shops like alcohol and tobacco. They add that that a majority also support for decriminalisation, something that would free up police time and resources to deal with serious crime:

The exclusive BMG Research poll for The Independent comes days after cannabis oil was for the first time brought into the UK legally, to treat an epileptic boy.

But within hours of the landmark moment, a young girl was rushed into hospital and placed on life support while she awaited a licence to get the same oil.

More than 1,500 people were asked if they supported or opposed the proposal that “cannabis be legalised, so that it is sold legally within a government regulated market in the same way that alcohol and tobacco is”. Overall, 22 per cent strongly backed the move, while 29 per cent somewhat supported it, bringing total support to 51 per cent.

Some 19 per cent opposed the move strongly, and 16 per cent, somewhat, bringing the proportion of those against it to 35 per cent, while 14 per cent did not know.

The respondents were then asked: “To what extent would you support or oppose cannabis be decriminalised, so that it is still a controlled substance not available for sale on the market, but that it is not criminalised (i.e. no prosecution for possession)?”

Here support rose slightly, to 52 per cent overall – with 20 per cent strongly backing it and 32 per cent somewhat behind the idea.

Some 17 per cent somewhat opposed the move, while 16 per cent strongly opposed it – total opposition of 33 per cent – and 16 per cent did not know.

The Liberal Democrats have held this view for some time as have a number of senior politicians such as William Hague and some senior police officers who believe that regulation can reduce the strength of cannabis and allow police resources to be better utilised tackling harder, more harmful drugs.

The UK Government continue to resist this move and I suspect that there would need to be prolonged and stronger support for legalisation by the UK public before they change their mind. This poll though is a move in the right direction.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Living in a post-truth world

It was another extraordinary day in UK politics yesterday, with tens of thousands of people protesting against Donald Trump, whilst the US President himself continued his habit of reinventing the truth as he progressed from event to event.

Two incidents in particular stick out. Firstly, as the Guardian reports, Trump abruptly disavowed the criticism of Theresa May he had earlier made to the Sun newspaper, delivering an extraordinary press conference performance alongside the prime minister in which he pledged new support for a post-Brexit trade deal and attacked the British tabloid over “fake news”.

The Sun of course has the whole interview on tape, indicating that the only 'fake news' was that being delivered by Trump to the assembled media.

And then there was the extraordinary Twitter exchange over Trump's claim that he had been in the UK on the day of the Brexit referendum and had correctly predicted the result. As Trump's own twitter feed as well as many other sources prove, he actually arrived in Scotland the day after the Brexit vote on 24th July 2016.

This did not stop Stephanie Grisham, the White House Director of Communications for the First Lady seeking to back up the misinformation given by the President. Fortunately, the BBC's Jon Sopel was around to put her back in her box.

There is a fascinating article by Michiko Kakutani in today's Guardian headed: 'he death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump' in which he asserts that Donald Trump lies so prolifically and with such velocity that the Washington Post calculated he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office – an average of 5.9 a day.

He says that his lies – about everything from the investigations into Russian interference in the election, to his popularity and achievements, to how much TV he watches are only the brightest blinking red light among many warnings of his assault on democratic institutions and norms. He routinely assails the press, the justice system, the intelligence agencies, the electoral system and the civil servants who make the US government tick.

He continues: 'Nor is the assault on truth confined to America. Around the world, waves of populism and fundamentalism are elevating appeals to fear and anger over reasoned debate, eroding democratic institutions, and replacing expertise with the wisdom of the crowd. False claims about the UK’s financial relationship with the EU helped swing the vote in favour of Brexit, and Russia ramped up its sowing of dezinformatsiya in the runup to elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries in concerted propaganda efforts to discredit and destabilise democracies.'

His conclusion is absolutely bang on the button, but no less unsettling for that:

Philip Roth said he could never have imagined that “the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the USA, the most debasing of disasters”, would appear in “the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon”. Trump’s ridiculousness, his narcissistic ability to make everything about himself, the outrageousness of his lies, and the profundity of his ignorance can easily distract attention from the more lasting implications of his story: how easily Republicans in Congress enabled him, undermining the whole concept of checks and balances set in place by the founders; how a third of the country passively accepted his assaults on the constitution; how easily Russian disinformation took root in a culture where the teaching of history and civics had seriously atrophied.

The US’s founding generation spoke frequently of the “common good”. George Washington reminded citizens of their “common concerns” and “common interests” and the “common cause” they had all fought for in the revolution. And Thomas Jefferson spoke in his inaugural address of the young country uniting “in common efforts for the common good”. A common purpose and a shared sense of reality mattered because they bound the disparate states and regions together, and they remain essential for conducting a national conversation. Especially today in a country where Trump and Russian and hard-right trolls are working to incite the very factionalism Washington warned us about, trying to inflame divisions between people along racial, ethnic and religious lines.

There are no easy remedies, but it’s essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend on to subvert resistance. Without commonly agreed-on facts – not Republican facts and Democratic facts; not the alternative facts of today’s silo-world – there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.

This is not a world that I am comfortable with and nor should any of us be. We need to fight back against this post-truth dystopia for the sake of democracy and our freedom.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Trump's visit highlights Britain's post-Brexit isolation

I don't suppose it matters how prepared we were for the disruptive, whirlwind that currently passes for the President of the United States, most of us are still shell-shocked at the diplomatic loose cannon that landed on our shores yesterday, who then proceeded to undermine and insult his hosts, whilst at the same time sticking his big nose into our internal affairs.

Just for the record, I thought it was unwise of President Obama two years ago to try to influence the result of the Brexit referendum and a major miscalculation on the part of Cameron to encourage him to do so. In a way Obama has paved the way for this brash monster and his interfering ways.

As the Guardian reports, having laid down the law at a NATO meeting, Trump swept into the UK, hailing Boris Johnson as a future prime minister, accusing the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, of doing “a bad job” on terrorism, telling us that there had been too much immigration in Europe and undermining his host, Theresa May's White Paper on Brexit on the day it was published.

The Independent tells us that Trump warned that Theresa May's Brexit plan would "kill" chances of any US-UK trade deal as any attempt to keep close ties with the European Union would make a future trade deal with the US unlikely.

If anything this tirade illustrates just how weak and isolated the UK has become on the World stage as a result of Brexit. Whilst we are in the European Union, we are part of a powerful trade bloc that can resist Trump's tariffs, insist on high food standards, which prevent the importation of US chlorine-washed chicken amongst other monstrosities, and protect our public services against predatory US corporations.

Outside the EU we are on our knees to Donald Trump begging scraps from the table. He dictates the terms of trade and we have to go along with it. We cease to be an equal partner in a free trade partnership and become instead a vassal-state of the USA.

Donald Trump's visit has an important lesson for all of us. If we want to remain a free and independent country in control of our own destiny then we need to stay in the EU. Anything less will put us in hock to this bully and the people behind him.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Tories are abandoning business for ideological Brexit

It is funny how Tory politicians portray themselves and their party as champions of business and free markets when they are trying to raise money, but when it comes to the crunch and those same business interests start to question the Tory party's direction of travel, those same politicians are no longer interested.

According to the Independent, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is worth a few bob, and has his own business interests, has urged the government to ignore the voice of business leaders as they have “got everything wrong in the whole of their history.”

One such business might be the London-based Somerset Capital Management, which described Brexit as a risk in a prospectus to a new fund it launched in March, and which is advising international investors to keep their money in the EU long-term. This is the city firm co-founded by Rees-Mogg, and where he still puts in a part-time shift. This fund by the way, is established in Ireland, so it will remain within the EU, irrespective of the outcome of Brexit talks.

Rees-Mogg believes that "vested interests" were colouring the views of major firms, because they want to protect themselves from tariffs on their goods. Well, yes, isn't that the whole rationale of a successful business, that they seek to maximise their profits whilst creating jobs and prosperity? Isn't the Tory Party meant to believe in that sort of thing?

The fact is that business has woken up to the existential threat that Brexit poses to their future and to the prosperity of the UK economy and they are starting to speak out. Unfortunately, those evidence-based views are just a little too inconvenient for Rees-Mogg and his fellow Brexiteers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Urgent changes needed to Universal Credit

The clamour for changes to Universal Credit is growing louder as it more and more vulnerable claimants find themselves being pushed into destitution, hunger and debt when they move on to the benefit.

As the Guardian reports, End Hunger UK, a coalition of 73 poverty charities and faith groups, say that excessive payment delays, common administrative errors and lack of support for claimants struggling to navigate the online-only system is driving up the use of food banks.

They have called for a dramatic reduction in the time claimants must wait for a first payment from a minimum of five weeks to just two weeks. They believe that the long wait is financially crippling for claimants who had no savings to fall back on:

There is growing concern among campaigners, landlords and opposition MPs about the cost and effectiveness of universal credit, as well as its impact on claimants, as the government prepares to “migrate” 3 million existing benefit claimants on to the benefit from next July.

The Trussell Trust food bank network reported a 52% average rise in demand for food aid in universal credit areas last year, compared with 13% in areas where it had not been rolled out.

The NAO’s universal credit report substantiated the Trussell Trust findings, seeing increased charity food parcel demand in three of the four areas it analysed, including an 80% increase in Hastings.

End Hunger UK also called for a rethink of advance payments, the system of repayable loans that is the government’s preferred method of supporting low-income claimants through the wait for a first universal credit payment.

It said the level of repayment on advances – capped at 40% of the living costs element of a monthly universal credit payment – should be relaxed to a maximum of 10%, to ensure claimants have enough disposable income to live on.

Surely it is time the UK Government listened and implemented these changes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Conservative Party chaos fails to make a mark in Brussels

It seems to me that in the two years or so since the referendum result condemned us to the disastrous chaos that masquerades as a Brexit process the only group that has come out of it with any dignity is the European Commission.

They were at it again yesterday, demonstrating the sort of sangfroid that has marked their approach to the negotiations in the face of the shit-storm that is the UK Government. As Theresa May once more sought to rebuild her cabinet, having lost six cabinet members since June 2017, the Commission's spokesperson, metaphorically at least, shrugged his shoulders, and invited us to get on with the task at hand.

As the Independent reports, when asked whether Mr Davis’s resignation is a problem for the EU, Margaritis Schinas, the Commission’s chief spokesperson replied: “Not for us,” adding: “We are here to work”:

But he added: “I think it matters a lot for the UK side because this is the person that would be the counterpart to our chief negotiator, and I think it matters a lot.

“What matters for us is the negotiating framework that our 27 member states have set for us and with which we are complying fully.”

Asked whether the Commission was concerned with the changes at the top, he said: “It is very clear that our position has always been very cool.

“We avoided positioning the Commission in terms of psychological elements: concern, enthusiasm, disappoint and so on. We are here to do a job – the time scale is tight, everyone knows this.”

He added: “Experience shows that the commitment at the political level facilitates the process. But then again I’m not here to indicate a preference.”

If only the UK Government had been as professional in their approach to these negotiations.

Monday, July 09, 2018

A damning condemnation of outsourcing

An investigation by the House of Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee into the aftermath of the Carillion collapse has produced a report that is a damning condemnation of the way that the UK Government handles outsourcing contracts and even of the practice itself.

Let us not forget, that PFI, as it was then known, was enthusiastically embraced by New Labour, with Gordon Brown seeking to use it to deliver projects off the Treasury books, so as not to upset his fiscal rules, whilst at the same time passing on risk from the public sector to the contractor.

However, the whole process became so complicated that many of those negotiating contracts on the part of the public sector failed to properly understand the intricacies of the deals they were working with. Penalty clauses proved inadequate and unenforceable, whilst a process of selling on contracts and sub-contracting even distorted who exactly was carrying the risk (and the responsibility) for the particular project.

In this fevered atmosphere, of under-bidding to win contracts and cross subsidy within over-large corporations, the subsequent growth and collapse of Carillion was inevitable. As the Guardian tells us the committee concluded that much of this was due to “an aggressive approach to risk transfer”.

The report found that ministers tried to spend as little money as possible when awarding contracts while forcing contractors to take unacceptable levels of financial risk:

Often the government does not fully understand the risks it is transferring to private companies, the committee says. It also fails to appreciate differences in quality provided by rival bidders because procurement decisions are driven by price.

As a result, public services have deteriorated as companies concluded that cost, rather than quality of services, is the government’s consistent priority.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee, says: “It is staggering that the government has attempted to push risks that it does not understand on to contractors and has so misunderstood its costs. It has accepted bids below what it costs to provide the service, so that the contract has had to be renegotiated.”

Sir Bernard's conclusion that the government must learn how to effectively manage its contracts and relationship with the market is in my view, the wrong one. There needs to  be a root and branch review of what the public sector hopes to achieve through outsourcing, how it is compatible with the delivery of high quality services to the public and whether it is right that so many key frontline services should be dependent on what is effectively an accounting trick. If that leads to a scaling back of outsourcing then so be it. Perhaps that is well overdue.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Labour missteps on anti-semitism - again

I have been away for a week and, although I have done my best to keep up with current events through social media, was quite shocked when I saw the detail of what Labour are proposing with regards to their internal anti-Semitism agenda.

It appears that rather than accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which has been adopted by thousands of public bodies and by political parties throughout the United Kingdom, Labour are seeking to build their disciplinary process around a much narrower view.

As Nick Cohen writes on the Guardian website, Labour has dropped the alliance’s stipulation that it was racist to accuse Jewish citizens of having a greater loyalty to world Jewry than their own country, or to hold Israel to a higher standard than other democratic nations:

The international definition implies that Ken Livingstone’s “Hitler was a Zionist” fake history or comparisons of Israel with Nazism are racist. Labour prefers to hide in a forest of equivocation. It is normal to draw metaphors from history, its Jewsplainers state. It is not antisemitic to use them “unless there is evidence of antisemitic intent”. As you can rarely look into another person’s soul and prove intent, I take that to mean Labour is giving many of its racists a free pass.

Its press officers assured me that the party wasn’t rigging the system. As they are good people wasting their lives working for compromised men and women, they must believe it. We do not. Recently departed Labour staffers describe as a “political project” the party’s decision to make Jews the only ethnic minority Labour denies the right to define the racism they face. Dissident leftists are already providing examples of the anti-Jewish hatred the new guidelines might allow.

This equivocation and sleight of hand by the Labour Party must surely undermine any credentials they had left as a radical, forward-thinking party. When combined with Jeremy Corbyn's capitulation to the Tories hard Brexit agenda, we really have to question what Labour are really for?

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