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Sunday, September 30, 2018

A bridge too far

As the Tory conference gets underway the country faces an unprecedented political crisis: a no-deal Brexit that will devastate our economy, a Tory Party deeply divided as never before, a naked bid for leadership by a former Foreign Secretary which is driving even deeper rifts within the Government, and a toothless official opposition, who have put the national interest to one side in the hope of benefitting from the chaos.

Boris Johnson's latest infrastructure project, a bridge linking Northern Ireland and Scotland is a pet project of the DUP, but has opened him up to derision once more and accusations of being out-of-touch with reality, but his constant public attacks on the Prime Minister and her Brexit compromise are succeeding in undermining her authority showing that the Tories are no longer fit to govern. May's only consolation is that Labour are worse, and that is reflected in the polls.

Meanwhile, the party who thinks it can solve the Northern Ireland problem through a technological solution cannot even get its own cyber-security right. As the Telegraph reports, the Conservative Party faces being fined after its software for conference delegates exposed the personal details of thousands of MPs and attendees, including Cabinet ­ministers.

But the most disturbing news was in yesterday's Guardian, which reported on new research that has concluded Brexit is already costing the public purse £500m a week.

They say that the UK economy is already 2.5% smaller than it would have been had Remain won the referendum. Public finances have been dented by £26bn a year, more than half of the defence budget. This translates to a penalty of £500m a week, a figure that is growing.

The paper also reports on claims that the boss of one UK-based carmaker has been flown by private jet to meet President Emmanuel Macron, in an attempt to persuade the company to move manufacturing to France after Brexit.

And a YouGov poll of 1,000 entrepreneurs and chief executives, carried out by the People’s Vote for another referendum, suggests the Tories risk denting their pro-business reputation over the handling of the Brexit talks. Almost three-quarters (73%) believe Britain is heading for a bad deal. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, said it suggested the party was “jeopardising its reputation for economic competence with the business community as a result of the way Brexit has unfolded”.

The real bridge too far in Brexit and the sooner we have the option to vote to stop it the better.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Is Plaid Cymru becoming a pro-Brexit party?

The previous Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood was curiously reluctant to commit her party to a people's vote on the final deal that would enable the UK to stay in the EU, if voters decided that was the best course of action.

Her successor appears to be prepared to take that position one step further, and has gone public to outline how a no-deal Brexit will actually help to deliver his primary aim of an independent Wales.

To the casual observer, it would appear, despite warm words to the contrary, that Plaid Cymru has joined UKIP, and the right wing of the Tory Party as pro-Brexit parties, with self-interest as their chief motivation.

The Guardian reports quotes Adam Price as saying that a no-deal Brexit would lead to economic disaster for Wales and could strengthen the case for independence:

Adam Price, in an interview with the Guardian after replacing Leanne Wood as leader on Friday, said he backed the idea of a people’s vote on Brexit and that a “remain” option should be on the ballot paper.

But if a no-deal Brexit did bring about an economic crisis it could prompt more people in Wales to come to the conclusion that independence from Westminster may be the best option, he said.

Price made it clear that his first priority was to improve the party machine to put it in a position to win power at the next assembly elections in 2021.

The 50-year-old said: “We have to take every opportunity to end the cataclysm that is heading our way. If we are able to get a people’s vote we should take that opportunity and ‘remain’ should be on the ballot. “If we don’t avoid a no-deal Brexit, we are going to see an unravelling of the Welsh economy on a 1930s scale because of the importance of agriculture and manufacturing on our economy.

“We’re about stopping it but if it happens it will be a crisis on a huge level. We will have to think how best to defend ourselves in those circumstances and that may accelerate the path towards independence. It may be then that the people of Wales will want to move faster towards independence.”

It is a finely balanced position to take, and leaves Price open to misinterpretation. He won the leadership by arguing that Plaid Cymru needs to be much more open about its aim of an independent Wales, and then outlines a scenario whereby that might happen.

What is his actual position? It is little wonder that those committed to us remaining in the EU might think the Brexiteers have found a new ally in Adam Price.

Friday, September 28, 2018

The crisis facing Welsh Councils

Pleas from Welsh Councils for more cash has been a standard since I first got involved in politics here over 35 years ago.

Even in the so-called good years of the early 2000s, when there seemed to be plenty of money about, we were being assailed with reports from the WLGA about the need for more money to invest in our infrastructure, and every budget round was an exercise in hand-wringing as councillors sought to balance increasing costs against limited resources.

It is fair to say though that the budget situation since the 2008 crash has been harder. All councils have had to make deep cuts whilst seeking to protect key frontline services, to the extent that there is now very little fat, if any at all, that can be carved out of budgets.

This has been made worse by the additional pressures being put on council budgets by an aging population and the impact of public service cuts elsewhere, as well as welfare benefit changes. Although it has to be said that Wales has fared much better than England in terms of council funding.

So when the Chief Executive of the WLGA tells us that local councils in Wales may have to shed 7,000 jobs a year unless they get more funding there is little reason to doubt him. This equates to 5% of their workforce but council leaders cannot say how many compulsory redundancies could be made.

The Welsh Local Government Association has also repeated a complaint that county halls have faced much bigger cuts than the NHS. Despite this it is local health boards that are facing huge deficits, whilst councils are so far managing to balance their books. Both are facing painful decisions.

There is a balance to be struck here, and I don't envy the Welsh Government in seeking to strike it. Whatever they decide to do, they are stymied by the fact that there is not enough money in the system and there is unlikely to be enough whilst costs and the demand for services continues to grow at the rate they are.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Are Welsh domestic abuse victims being let down?

The story of one woman who was assaulted by her ex-husband and says she feels "let down" by officers who she says could have used an order to prevent the attack has triggered an important debate about the attitude of police forces to such incidents and whether the tools available to them are effective enough and/or used properly.

The BBC report that since 2014, officers have been able to get a 28-day emergency protection order in cases of suspected abuse. But Welsh forces used them in just 3% of 30,000 cases where arrests were made but no-one was charged:

Officers are able to gain the protection order when they arrest someone, regardless of whether they are later charged, but have only used this power 970 times in 30,000 cases since 2014.

Forces also reported 362 times when orders were breached.

Welsh Women's Aid said the orders give women "breathing space", however it added that they are often breached because officers are "slow to respond" and may not take them seriously.

"These protection orders are only going to be as good as the support and protection that they give the survivor," said the charity's Gwendolyn Sterk.

The charity has called for breaches to be made a criminal offence.

In some respects this is a resource issue, but when a protection order is sought it is absurd that any breach is not punishable as a criminal offence. Victims deserve far more protection than this and, in many cases, for police forces to take their plight more seriously and to act more expeditiously.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

More Labour Brexit chaos

Kudos to Keir Starmer, who is taking a brave stand on Brexit in the face of a very unhelpful Labour Party leadership, and in particular for the unscripted line in his speech yesterday that appears to have thrown a very large cat in amongst his party's Brexiteer pigeons.

His problem though, as this piece in The Spectator makes clear, is that he is not just ranged against the Kate Hooey's and Frank Field's of this world. It is the party leadership that are determined to fudge and prevaricate on Labour's position and do all that it can to take us out of the EU, despite the vast majority of Labour party members wanting to remain:

From the moment Keir Starmer left the conference stage after setting out Labour’s Brexit position, rumours began to circulate that all wasn’t as it seemed. When the shadow Brexit secretary spoke in the conference hall this morning, he received a standing ovation for pledging to keep all options open on Brexit – including the option to remain in the EU; ‘Nobody is ruling out remain as an option.’

However, less than an hour later and dissent has broken out on the conference hall over the party position – and whether the shadow Brexit secretary correctly articulated the official policy. As Steerpike reports, that passage of the speech was not in the official text sent to hacks – leading to suggestions that it was not approved. Notably, the reception among Corbyn’s allies has been lukewarm at best.

I understand that the line was ad-libbed. Unsurprisingly, those comments have caused a row here at conference. While pro-EU members are pleased, others are at pains to say that Starmer is wrong – and that Labour policy does not include the option to remain in the EU. Len McCluskey’s deputy Steve Turner has taken to the conference hall stage to correct Starmer. He says Starmer was wrong and – adopting the John McDonnell line – that any public vote on the terms of departure rather than the idea of remaining in the EU. This is what the shadow chancellor said yesterday in an interview – and something Len McCluskey has also echoed.

As the magazine says, although there is a lot of noise over Labour’s ever-changing Brexit position, all the signs suggest that Corbyn and McDonnell are against a second referendum that could allow the UK to remain in the EU. Until that changes, Labour’s policy on a second referendum is flimsy at best, what ever Starmer gets up and says.

Not only are Labour failing in their role as an opposition, they are in as much chaos as the Tories on Brexit. Only the Liberal Democrats are united behind a clear position of a people's vote on the final deal, which could enable the UK to stay in the EU.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

More consequences of the inevitable no-deal Brexit

The government has published the latest in its series of advice notes on the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, an outcome that is looking increasingly likely, and it does not look encouraging for those who like to holiday abroad.

As the Independent reports, the papers say that flights will be grounded if Britain crashes out of the EU next March unless an emergency aviation deal can be struck. They add that a no-deal Brexit could also force passengers to re-screen luggage and go back through security on, for example, a flight to the UK via Paris or Amsterdam.

In addition, the latest batch of advice papers also warned food producers that pre-packaged products “would no longer be valid for the EU market”, without a separate EU business address and Ministers have told motorists that they will need to apply for a green card as proof of third party motor insurance cover when driving in the EU. There is more:

Pet owners who want to take their dogs and cats abroad would face the significant inconvenience of having to register three months in advance.

Meanwhile, UK hauliers were warned they could be banned from the continent, because they could “no longer rely on automatic recognition by the EU of UK-issued community licences”. The Food and Drink Federation reacted with horror to the technical notices, warning they “lay bare the grisly prospect of a no-deal Brexit”.

It urged Theresa May to stop “lecturing the EU” and seek to delay Brexit, by extending the Article 50 deadline, if it could not secure a withdrawal deal “imminently”. 

Layla Moran, a Liberal Democrat supporter of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain, said the threat to flights was “a bureaucratic nightmare and a farce”.

This is not 'Project Fear' as some Brexiteers would label it but real consequences of the mismanaged process by an incompetent government and of the lies that were prevalent during the referendum campaign. Nobody voted for this chaos, that is why a public vote on whatever terms we leave the EU, with a clear option to remain, is essential.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Labour fail to commit to a people's vote on Brexit

The media spin is that Labour have taken a major step towards another referendum on Brexit but the reality is that the party's position has not changed and remains as confused as ever.

As the BBC reports, the composite motion that will be put before Labour conference delegates in fact asks them to vote on keeping "all options on the table" on Brexit, including possibly campaigning for a new referendum.

The party's leadership still want a general election allowing Labour to take control of negotiations if it won and this motion accommodates that viewpoint. Furthermore, Shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the BBC he thought any referendum vote should be on the terms of a Brexit deal rather than an option to stay in the EU:

He said that Labour would continue to respect the 2016 referendum in which people voted by 51.9% to 48.1% for the UK to leave the European Union.

And he said a general election was needed so a Labour government could strike a Brexit deal with the EU which "brings the country together".

Key delegates - including shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and leading figures from some trade unions - decided the text at a meeting which lasted several hours on Sunday evening. 

The final draft for the vote says: "If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote." 

This is a complete cop-out once more by Corbyn and the Labour Party, who are still clinging to the fantasy that it is possible to leave the EU and have a deal comparable to the current arrangement. The European leaders have already made it clear that is not possible.

Even worse, if it does come to a further plebiscite, they do not want to give us the option of accepting the reality that the Brexiteers position has been a fantasy all along and that we would therefore wish to remain in the EU.

This conference vote will leave only the Liberal Democrats campaigning for a meaningful people's vote and an exit from Brexit, whilst Labour continue to give succour to the Tories.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The defenestration of UKIP

Two Daily Mirror journalists came to the Liberal Democrats conference determined to find material that would label us as marginalised and irrelevant. The best they came up with were a couple of songs from the Liberator song book that were rather rude about the leader, his predecessor and well, pretty much everybody associated with the party really.

From my perspective all that they managed to demonstrate is that the Liberal Democrats are as cynical as everybody else, but with a unique ability to laugh at ourselves. It would not be tolerated at any other party conference, which is why I am a member of the Liberal Democrats.

A similar exercise appears to have been carried out for the UKIP conference, but the results are much more disturbing, in so many ways. As this piece illustrates, the reporters found evidence of the bizarre, the offensive and the downright unsettling.

First up is a book entitled 'The Health Hazards of Homosexuality' (note the capital 'h's) which is for sale on the table run by the 'Support 4 the Family' group, which the paper says, is the source of a lot of UKIP's most shockingly socially conservative stuff. It aims to "alert the public on the serious physical and psychological health dangers inherent in adopting a 'gay', lesbian or bisexual identity." The paper presumes that the chief physical danger is being beaten up by homophobes.

Secondly, is a book about 'curing' 'unwanted same-sex attraction'. The Mirror suggests that this advocates the controversial 'gay-cure' therapies that every other party is distancing themselves from.

There is a booklet from the hard-line Support 4 the Family group - titled "the transgender delusion" - which brands people's legal right to change their recognised gender" as a direct attack on matromony" (sic). The booklet claims: "The 'transgendered' and their allies would rule us."  There is also a booklet that blames the EU for the Grenfell Tower fire and a 'wake up sheeple!' book about Islam.

And then there is the branded merchandise. This includes a souvenir photo of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, Nigel Farage condoms, UKIP beermats, actual Brexit fudge and Brexit thongs adorned with the slogan 'I heart UKIP'.

The rest of the list is pretty standard UKIP including Neil Hamilton talking for 15 minutes about 'political correctness gone mad' (apparently he is still the leader of UKIP in Wales, despite being deposed as Assembly group leader), and an exchange about immigration in which members shouted "send them back" as General Secretary Paul Oakley unveiled the party's new hard-line immigration policy.

It is little wonder that UKIP have joined the fringe parties on the far right of the UK political spectrum.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Labour's dereliction compounds May's humiliation

Just when we needed Her Majesty's Official Opposition to step up  and take responsibility they are nowhere to be found. It is little wonder that former Labour Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has accused his party of a 'dereliction of duty'.

As the Independent reports, Miliband believes that Labour has "no strategy" for Britain's withdrawal from the EU and that the party's failure to back calls for a Final Say on Brexit amounts to a dereliction of duty:

Mr Miliband, a former Labour leadership candidate, told BBC Radio 4 Today: "Labour has got to be much, much stronger. The truth is that waiting for the government to foul up is no strategy at all. The country desperately needs a strong government but it also need a strong opposition.

"Labour's tragedy over 20 years - and I include my own period in this - is that there was almost a complacency about Europe. The Tory tragedy was to be obsessed about Europe and the Labour tragedy was to be complacent about Europe."

He added: "Finally the complacency is breaking, at least at the constituency level of the Labour Party, but it's an absolute dereliction of duty for the Labour Party leadership not to embrace the fundamental principle that since the Brexit that people were sold two years ago is not available, it's essential that the Brexit deal the prime minister does is put to people.

"The most corrosive thing in the long term will be a Brexit on terms that were mis-sold."

Mr Miliband predicted Ms May would "eke out" a "paper-thin deal" with Brussels and then "use the threat of no deal and the disaster that represents to try to bludgeon people to support it".

He said: "No deal is obviously a terrible disaster for the country.

"Theresa May has painted herself and painted the country into a corner. We're now in a situation where the contradictions and the delusions of Brexit are coming home to roost. There is no Brexit where you can have the benefits of the European Union without living by their rules."

Miliband is absolutely right. Labour's spokesperson on Radio 4 did not even confirm that party will vote against the final deal if it does not meet their six tests All she would say is that Labour would not vote for it, leaving open the possibility of an abstention by the official opposition and an exit from the EU with a poor or disastrous deal or even a no deal.

If that happened it would plunge the UK economy into recession, hit our standard of living and lead to thousand of jobs being lost. Corbyn and his leadership team really need to do better. At the moment their fence-sitting is just giving succour to the Tories and UKIP.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The humiliation of Theresa May

There was a certain inevitability about Theresa May's humiliation at the yesterday's Salzburg summit. Not only has she been handed an impossible negotiating position by the hard-line Brexiteers in her party, who somehow believe that they can still deliver on the lies and half-thought through promises that won them the referendum, but she has destroyed her own room for manoeuvre within the Conservative Party by her ill-advised dash for a majority in the 2017 General Election.

She has also suffered from her own naivety and failure to understand the red lines of her opponents within the EU, who have created a single market which benefits all of them (and the UK too, if only we would realise that) and do not wish to give that up easily. Why would they allow the UK to leave that arrangement and then benefit from it afterwards? To do so would undermine the whole rationale behind the single market apparatus and lead to its inevitable collapse.

The Guardian quotes the Transport Secretary as saying that the EU’s demands on Northern Ireland are “impossible” for the UK to accept. And yet the Good Friday agreement, which the UK Government brokered and signed up to, leaves the EU with no choice but to insist on keeping the Northern Ireland border open. Why do Government Ministers think that there can be any other settlement?

As a result the Chequers agreement is unworkable and unacceptable. It proposes the UK shares a common rulebook for goods and services after Brexit in an attempt to prevent a return of customs checks for goods crossing the Irish border. But the EU leaders believe it will undermine the single market by giving British companies a competitive advantage and pose a threat to the “European project”.

French President Macron is absolutely right when he accuses British Brexiters of lying about how easy it would be to negotiate an exit from the EU on terms favourable to the UK:

“Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be alright, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home are liars,” said Macron. “It’s even more true since they left the day after so as not to have to deal with it.”

Where we go now is a big question. Can May create room within her government to offer more concessions to the EU? Can she find an acceptable solution for Northern Ireland? And if she can't will she be forced to put a 'no deal exit' before Parliament, and see it voted down?

The immediate question though is whether Theresa May can even survive her party's conference? At present a General Election is looking far more likely than a third referendum on EU membership.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Who are the runners and riders in the Tory leadership race?

It is telling that despite there being no vacancy, Theresa May's position is so precarious newspapers and others are already speculating on her successor.

The Telegraph is no exception and they have an exclusive this morning in which they reveal what is described as an explosive internal memo suggesting the Prime Minister will be forced to “stand down soon after March 2019” and detailing the pros and cons of her potential successors.

They say that the excruciating dossier is being widely circulated among Tory MPs and analyses the leadership prospects of her cabinet colleagues and other contenders, including leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg:

It emerged as Mrs May is desperately trying to sell her widely criticised Chequers plan to EU leaders in Salzburg on Wednesday evening.

As a sign of the growing mutiny within the Tory party, MPs have been sharing the memo between themselves as they continue to openly discuss the Prime Minister's replacement on WhatsApp.

Written in April but re-circulated in recent days, the dossier - believed to have been authored by a Tory MP - is based on the “assumption” that the 1922 backbench committee will “invite the PM to stand-down soon(ish) after March 2019”.

Advising colleagues to “manoeuver [sic] immediately”, it provides an unflinching assessment of 27 of Mrs May’s potential successors, describing Environment Secretary Michael Gove as being “on manoeuvres”, Chancellor Philip Hammond as “thinking he has a chance” but “not a hope” and Trade Secretary Liam Fox as “fading”.

“Bookies [sic] favourite” Mr Johnson is considered an unlikely successor because “the front-runner never wins” while Mr Rees-Mogg is described as “the party’s favourite” but “unlikely to succeed to the last two”.

The dossier claims former Brexit Secretary David Davis pretends “not to be interested, but is” although the conclusion is he “won’t succeed” because it is “too late”.

His fellow Brexiteer and former leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, is branded “totally unsuitable”, while Home Secretary Sajid Javid - seen as the favourite among younger Tories - is described as “wanting it” but “trying to recover from Referendum positioning error”. Mr Javid voted for Remain but is now trying to present himself as a pragmatic re-Leaver.

So too is Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who the memo describes as a “dark horse, near the front of the pack coming up the rail”. The memo adds: "Note John Major 1990" - a reference to the former Prime Minister’s shock election as leader ahead of Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd, his more high-profile rivals to Margaret Thatcher.

Personally, I don't like the look of any of them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Busting the immigration myths

Yesterday's Daily Mirror comments on an expert report from the Migration Advisory Committee that it says busts some major myths about immigration, many favoured by the far right.

The first myth, that EU migrants live off the state is rebutted by the stark fact that in fact they contribute £2,300-a-year more to the UK than average Britons:

What today's report says: "The average adult migrant from the European Economic Area (EEA) contributed approximately £2,300 more to the UK public finances than the average adult resident in the UK.

"The average non-EEA migrant contributed around £840 less than the average adult resident in the UK."

Far from being a drain on resources the MAC found that European migrants - especially those from EU13 which makes up older members of the bloc - pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits and use in public services.

It's only non-EU migrants, who are already subject to visa controls, who on average contribute less than native Brits.

The second myth to fall is that the number of EU migrants is undermining public services such as the NHS:

What today's report says: "EEA migrants contribute much more to the health service and the provision of social care in financial resources and through work than they consume in services.

"EEA workers are an increasing share of the health and social care workforces though these sectors employ greater numbers of non-EEA migrants.

"There is no evidence that migration has reduced the quality of healthcare."

Thirdly, the claim that migrants are taking all our jobs is also nonsense:

What today's report says: " In this report we assessed the impact of migration on the labour market, including on employment and wages. 

"Taking all the new evidence into account we found that migrants have no or little impact on the overall employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce. 

"The impact may vary across different UK-born groups with more negative effects for the lower-skilled and more positive effects for the higher-skilled. However, our robustness checks suggest that these findings are subject to uncertainty."

Fourthly, the claim that immigration pushes wages down is also wrong:

What today's report says: "In terms of wages the existing evidence and the analysis we present in the report suggests that migration is not a major determinate of the wages of UK-born workers. 

"We found some evidence suggesting that lower-skilled workers face a negative impact whi,le higher-skilled workers benefit, however the magnitude of the impacts are generally small."

Finally, migrants are not the *biggest* reason Brits struggle to get a council house:

What today's report says: Here the report is more balanced in favour of Brexiteers - but it makes a very interesting read. It admits migration "has increased house prices", but says this can't be seen in isolation from other government policies.

It also admits increased migration has "reduced the probability of UK-born being allocated to social housing".

But although immigrants are more likely to demand social housing, they're less likely to be allocated it, the report says. 

And it adds: "Manning et al. (2014) conclude that immigration can explain one-third of the reduction in the probability of a UK citizen being in social housing.

"But the reduction in the social housing stock itself has had by far the largest impact on UK-born households, explaining the remaining two-thirds of the reduction in the probability of a UK citizen being in social housing."

I am glad we cleared all that up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Is Liberal Democrats Conference a turning point?

I was talking to a journalist yesterday who told me that he always enjoys Liberal Democrats Conference because we are so optimistic. It comes with the territory, it really does and yet there is a lot to be optimistic about.

I don't mean the polls of course. It seems that we are still becalmed in the 9% to 10% territory. I have never seen so few journalists at a Liberal Democrats Conference, with the BBC virtually absent altogether, apparently because of budget cutbacks in their political and current affairs departments. And of course we are still light on Parliamentarians, apart from members of the House of Lords, who seem to be lurking in every nook and cranny of the Brighton Centre.

And yet, partly because we have opened up Conferences to all members, we have one of the biggest gatherings ever, and what is more, for the first time since I have been coming to these events over 40 years ago, attendees are much closer to representing the make-up of the general population (well those who voted remain anyway) both in age-range and ethnicity.

The quality of the contributions to debates has been as high as ever, whilst the policy papers and motions are, by and large, distinctive and well-researched. So far, so normal.

Timing is everything and this Conference is taking place at a potential turning point for the Liberal Democrats and the country. Whatever, one thinks of Vince Cable's proposed reforms (some are sensible, some less so) they have generated interest in the party amongst the chattering classes, with a large number of people already signed up as supporters. That does not make us the movement Vince wants but it is a good start.

More importantly, the presence of some significant anti-Brexit campaigners such as Gina Miller, has underlined the party's status as a rallying point for pro-Europeans and as major focus for those wishing to resist the disastrous consequences of us leaving the EU.

With just over 190 days to go until we depart the EU for ever, the campaign for a people's vote (Gina Miller apparently does not like the phrase, and nor do I) has started to really gather momentum. However, whilst the Conservatives remain irrevocably split and Labour continues to sit on the fence, giving succour to Theresa May, it is left to the Liberal Democrats to lead the way.

The party is still struggling to articulate a vision for either a post or no-Brexit UK and that matters a lot. But in many ways that is not a concern for now. Our leadership role in opposing Brexit could prove to be crucial in creating a space whereby we will be heard on other issues. Stepping up the pace in campaigning against Brexit will have wider benefits for the party of Lloyd George and Gladstone.

This though, is a high risk strategy. It may all end in tears, specifically a General Election rather than a referendum, in which the Liberal Democrats will struggle to be heard. The scenario in which Theresa May resists taking her deal to the people and is instead voted down by Parliament is a very likely one. She has said already that the choice for MPs will be what she negotiates or no deal at all. Is that a bluff? Who knows? She is playing a high stakes game with the country's and her own future. So are we.

The Liberal Democrats have jumped head-first into an all or nothing scenario. If the gamble pays off then they may reap huge rewards. If it falls short then who knows what will happen?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Government should be ashamed of position on citizen rights

It is difficult to disagree with the former president of the Confederation of British Industry, who has said that the UK government and European leaders “should be ashamed” that they have not guaranteed the rights of citizens in the event of a no-deal Brexit:

Paul Drechsler said it was an “absolute scandal” that EU citizens in the UK and British nationals in Europe remained in limbo more than two years after the referendum.

“Leaving people hanging by a thread of uncertainty is totally against British values, totally against European values,” he told The Guardian.

“We should be ashamed of the fact that we sweep that aside,” he added.

About 3.8 million EU citizens are residents of the UK and an estimated 900,000 Britons live elsewhere in the EU.

Mr Dreschler said both groups should be given “an unambiguous, unconditional guarantee they will be OK no matter what”. He said the the status of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit was the crucial issue facing businesses in London.

Mr Dreschler, who now chairs London First, an umbrella group of firms in the capital, called or an end to ”lies” about immigration. “It’s time we were honest with people about the positive role and contribution, our industry, research, tech, [migrants] make,”

Celebrating the role of immigrants in our society, their contribution to our prosperity and our economy has been a major theme of the Liberal Democrats Conference so far this week. Our country would grind to a halt without that input and we would all be culturally poorer.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Treasury misplaces Gladstone

Cats do have a tendency to roam so let's hope that the absence of Gladstone from the vaulted confines of the nation's treasury will only be temporary.

Nevertheless, the mouser's wanderlust has made national headlines and a call has gone out for reports from the public of any sightings, the sort of appeal that normally just graces community Facebook groups and pages on a daily basis.
The Guardian claims it is a purritical crisis. They say that the three-year-old cat, known as the most prolific mouse-catcher in government, is believed to have gone missing in the Westminster area. Treasury staff have been told to keep an eye out for Gladstone,, who has more than 15,000 Instagram followers.

Gladstone was adopted from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in 2016 after a team of six staff agreed to look after him, paying for his food and accessories from out of their own pockets.

There must be many politicians who are envious of his ability to quietly and discreetly disappear in an area which has the highest concentration of journalists and media personnel in the country. But for the sake of all those who love and tend for him, we pray that he makes his way home soon.

Update: he is back

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tory splits on Brexit hits Conference preparations

The fact that the Tories are to treat leading campaigners for a third Brexit referendum in the same way as Russian diplomats and refuse them passes to their Conference, tells us everything we need to know about the paranoiac, divided and unhappy state of their party.

As the Guardian reports, three leading campaigners for a second Brexit referendum have been refused passes for the Conservative party conference, prompting them to complain that the governing party is suppressing voices it disagrees with:

Eloise Todd, Best for Britain’s director, was among those who were refused passes on Thursday night in a terse email that gave no explanation as to why her accreditation and that of two colleagues was not granted. Russian diplomats have also been refused passes.

“The Conservative party can put their heads in the sand but it doesn’t change the fundamental and unavoidable truth that public opinion is shifting away from Brexit,” Todd said. “A party of government should always be listening – even to voices it may disagree with.”

The paper says that Best for Britain will hold a fringe event at Birmingham outside the secure perimeter, with speakers including Phillip Lee, a Conservative junior minister who resigned over the government’s Brexit policy. The group also plans to buy a wraparound advert in the Birmingham Mail and take out billboards to remind Conservative delegates of their campaign.

However, the suppression of dissenting views within the Tory Party in this way will leave a bitter taste in the mouth of those Conservative MPs who have been campaigning for a rethink and win Theresa May no friends, at a time when she is most in need of allies.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Bashing the rich in Swansea

Just as a follow-up to my anecdote yesterday about Ree-Mogg baiter, Ian Bone, I thought I would see what was available on the interweb about the anarchist's time in Swansea.

There are a number of interviews with Bone, dubbed the 'most dangerous man in Britain' including this piece for the Guardian in which the origins of the Alarm newspaper are alluded to:

Bone had started his first anarchist paper, Alarm, in Swansea. It comprised handwritten sheets of paper with punchy graphics and funny headlines. "There was a lot of corruption in Swansea and we got a couple of council leaders sent to jail. That taught me you could do a working-class paper that people actually liked, as opposed to a leftie paper full of agitprop."

Bone has a blog in which he records many of the events from his activism and of course there is his autobiography, 'Bash the Rich: True Life Confessions of an Anarchist in the UK' Most interesting though is this account by Catrin Saran James who was asked to research, interview and create an oral history archive of Swansea’s anarchistic underground and counter-culture from the late 1960s to the early 1980s for the Trouble Makers Festival held in and around High Street Swansea on 13-16 July 2017.
What I discovered from this account is that a complete set of ALARM!s are held by the West Glamorgan Archive Service. Reading through them could well provide a worthwhile and interesting insight into the political and social history of Swansea in the 1970s, a period that saw two council leaders sent to prison.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Ian Bone - the Swansea connection

The man who door-stepped Jacob Rees-Mogg, his children and his nanny yesterday has been identified as long-standing anarchist Ian Bone. Condemnation of his actions in directly addressing the Rees-Mogg children has been universal and quite rightly so, but Ian Bone has a long history of upsetting the apple cart.

One of Bone's actions was to quiz Rees-Mogg's nanny Veronica Crook, over her pay and working conditions, no doubt a cause close to the anarchist's heart given that his own father was in domestic service, working as a butler.

Ian Bone does have connections with Swansea. He studied politics at Swansea University, becoming an active anarchist throughout the 1960s to early 1990s and set up the anarchist agit-mag Alarm here.

When I became a Councillor in 1984 and wanted to try and open up the council to public questions, one of the objections was that it would only encourage the likes of Ian Bone to disrupt proceedings. The scars ran deep for some councillors over previous confrontations with Alarm and its founder.

My one run-in with Ian Bone took place when I was at Swansea University and a member of the student executive, though we didn't meet directly.

Ian Bone at that time was promoting an 'anti-sexist' band called Page Four. It had initially been called Page Three, but the Sun reportedly threatened legal action. One story is that Bone allegedly alerted the Sun to the issue himself so as to garner additional publicity.

As an executive member it was my job to hold the key to the union building and supervise the concert that Page Four staged in the top floor debates chamber of Union House for insurance purposes. Unfortunately, word soon got around that the band believed that irony was the best way to combat Page Three models and that in line with this approach, their female lead singer would perform naked.

Needless to say the whole thing got out of hand. The hall was packed to over-capacity, mostly with male students who had had too much to drink. A number of sex acts were performed on stage, which wound up the audience even more and then somebody pressed the fire alarm.

The concert ended prematurely and there was a near riot as we attempted to clear the building. An assessment the next morning found hundreds of pounds of damage that the students union had to pay for.

Soon afterwards, I believe Ian Bone moved to London and things quietened down.

Update: According to Bone's autobiography 'Bash the Rich' the fire alarm was set off by Paul Durden, one of the writers who created the film 'Twin Town'

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Welsh Assembly UKIP group splinters further

Surprise, surprise, yet another member of the Welsh Assembly UKIP group has left the party. Is there anybody left in that group?  This time it is the South Wales West UKIP Assembly Member, Caroline Jones.

She has told the BBC that the party's leader Gerard Batten is alienating his members by moving the party to the far-right. She added that UKIP is taking "a direction that I'm not comfortable with". Her resignation means the UKIP group has four AMs left from the seven which entered the Senedd in 2016:

Mrs Jones said Mr Batten was changing the party "to a more far-right position, which a lot of the long-standing members are finding quite unfavourable, including myself".

"I never joined the party to be part of a far-right organisation. I joined the party because I wanted to come out of the European Union. I still do."

"Gerard Batten should listen to all sides and try to mediate and bring people together, as opposed to alienating them", she added.

In response Mr. Batten said: "Her statement is politically correct twaddle to disguise the fact that Mrs Jones is politically ineffective. I wish her well languishing in the outer realms of irrelevance." What a lovely group of people.

It has to be said that Caroline Jones did not appear to have the same problem with Batten and the direction he was taking UKIP in when she was acting leader of the Welsh branch for a few months earlier this year. She also sustained her membership during the EU referendum when UKIP were posting clearly racist propaganda about immigrants.

Far be it for me to suggest that losing the leadership has anything to do with this situation.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A power grab or a fair redistribution

If you are to succeed in politics then you need to start with a power base, a group of people who are going to elect you and then further groups who will support you as you rise through the ranks. There is nothing more sensitive to an MP therefore, or indeed a political party, as the integrity of their constituency.

It was inevitable therefore that the publication of boundary commission proposals that will see the number of MPs reduced from 650 to 600 was going to produce howls of anguish, not least from those who are losing out.

Nevertheless, those opposing these plans do have a point. We are about to come out of the EU. That means that the loss of 73 MEPs and their role in scrutinising legislation will inevitably lead to an increase in the workload of MPs, as that legislation is transferred to Parliament, as well as creating a demand for more effective scrutiny of the executive. It will be difficult to do this if the number of backbench MPs are cut, whilst those on the government payroll stay unchanged.

And of course there is the case that it will be the Conservative Party who will benefit most from this change, leading to cries of foul play from opposition parties. One study by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, academics at the University of Plymouth, calculated that the new boundaries would have given the Conservatives an overall majority of 16 in last year’s election. The Tories would have taken 10 fewer seats than they did and Labour 30 fewer. Is that a coincidence? I don't think so.

The Guardian reports that Labour are particularly miffed: The shadow Cabinet Office minister Cat Smith said the final recommendations amounted to “an undemocratic power grab”. “With no plans to reduce the number of ministers, the government is weakening the role of parliament and creating unprecedented levels of executive dominance at the expense of backbenchers, when parliament is meant to be taking back control,” she said.

“Cutting the number of MPs by 50 as we prepare to leave the European Union is further proof this government is clamouring to tighten its grip on power. With the workload of MPs set to rise after Brexit, with thousands of pieces of important legislation expected to come through parliament, it would be utterly ludicrous to go ahead with these boundary changes.”

One of the reasons the outcome of this review is so one-sided is that the boundary commission were told to work with the electorate as it stood in 2015. Since then there has been a dramatic surge in new registrations around the Brexit referendum and the 2017 General Election, mostly of young people who may not be so inclined to back the Tories.

As a result some Labour areas have been misrepresented in the calculations leaving them with fewer winnable seats than they might otherwise expect. This was picked up at the time and Labour even tabled an amendment in the House of Lords to correct the discrepancy. They should have won that amendment but failed to get enough of their peers into the lobby to vote. They bear some responsibility for this outcome therefore.

It is just as well then that the chances of these boundary changes successfully getting through the House of  Commons is roughly comparable to Boris Johnson becoming Labour leader. Turkeys ain't going to vote for Christmas.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Boris starts a civil war

The Guardian reports that the Conservative party has erupted into open civil war after forceful criticism of Boris Johnson over his description of Theresa May’s Brexit plan as a “suicide vest” prompted counter-accusations of a “project smear” by Downing Street.

They say that the furious exchanges, in which a leading Tory backbencher said she would probably quit the party if Johnson became leader, herald a turbulent run-up to the party’s conference this month, which is likely to be dominated by intertwined rows over Brexit and the successor to Theresa May:

But Johnson further fuelled speculation about his ambitions by using his regular Monday newspaper column to argue that the UK should follow Donald Trump’s example and slash taxes to create a “happy and dynamic economy”.

And the former Brexit minister, Steve Baker, added to the divisions by warning that the Conservative party faces a “catastrophic split” if the prime minister sticks to her Chequers plan for future relations with the EU.

So far so good. Boris Johnson's problem though is that he is good at criticising but less good at providing an alternative, a prerequisite if he is to move back into political office. It is one reason why he was such a disaster as Foreign Secretary.

That appears to apply to the European Research Group as well, the hard-line gathering of pro-Brexit MPs who are seeking to block May's Chequer's plan and put Boris into No.10 Downing Street. As The Times makes clear, the ERG's attempt at an alternative to Chequer's ended in ignominious failure:

Conservative Eurosceptics have abandoned their plan to publish an alternative Chequers blueprint.

Tory members of the European Research Group had been due to put their names to a single document setting out their own proposals for a limited Brexit deal with the European Union.

The plan was shelved amid divisions over strategy and fears among some MPs that it would provide ammunition for Downing Street and pro-European groups to attack their proposals.

I agree with Digital Spy, perhaps the ERG should just resort to colouring in a map of the British Empire instead. Not only does it seem more suited to their brand of politics but it also shows how bankrupt their thinking truly is.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Call for a period of silence on the part of Johnson and Rees-Mogg

Whatever one might think about the European Community and the bureaucrats who oil the wheels, I am sure that even some Brexiteers will be nodding a vigorous, affirmative, 'yes' at the words of Ireland's member of the EU executive, who has suggested that Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg might want to “shut up and let Prime Minister May get on with her work” in negotiating a deal.

As the Independent reports, Phil Hogan has warned that Britain is “trapped in a recurring cycle of silly behaviour” over Brexit and risks leaving the EU without an agreement on trade. He has lambasted the “absurdist politics” dominating Westminster and called for period of silence from the Tory Party's leading Brexiteers:

Speaking in County Wexford in Ireland, the member of the EU executive also warned: “If the UK attitude is Chequers and only Chequers, there will be no agreement before March next year on the future trade relationship.”

The British government has suggested that the choice in talks is now between the Chequers trade proposal and no-deal.

“More than two years after the referendum, the UK remains in a pickle. And by pickle, I mean that the UK is trapped in a recurring cycle of silly behaviour,” he told an audience at the Kennedy Summer School.

“Several times Prime Minister May has courageously dragged the UK factions into some sort of line of battle and turned it to face Brussels. Because, after all, it is with Brussels that the UK’s exit deal must be done.

“But the factions in her own party will have none of it. Mr Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg say, in effect, ‘prime minister, you must negotiate Brexit with us’.”

Mr Hogan, who is Ireland’s member of the EU executive, continued: “This is leading to absurdist politics. Michel Barnier, on behalf of the EU, has repeatedly said that the UK cannot cherry-pick parts of the internal market by wanting a market for goods but not services, and that the UK cannot split the EU’s four freedoms. This is the clear and unequivocal message of the EU 27.

“So what is the reaction of Mr Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg? It is certainly not to shut up and let Prime Minister May get on with her work.

“But what they also don’t do, because constructive criticism is not a concept they recognise, is offer some alternative suggestions. They see their task as pouring negativism on all suggestions apart from a clean break from the dreaded bureaucrats of Brussels. So we are stuck – at least publicly – where we were before the summer.”

This is an interesting insight into the mindset of the Commission. Clearly, the UK Government is considered to be irreparably divided over its approach to negotiations, so much so that the unacceptable proposals being put forward in the Chequer's Agreement may be the best offer we have. Has a no deal exit ever looked more likely?

Saturday, September 08, 2018

That was the week that was

It is a mad, mad, World and it is surely becoming more dysfunctional by the day. The USA is in the grip of Trumpism with his 'fake news' and his 'fake books'.  In Sweden the far right immigration party looks like it will secure 20% of the vote tomorrow and hold the balance of power. Whilst UK politics is being dominated by incompetents and eccentrics, who are allowing foreign powers to run riot through our institutions.

Putting aside the Boris gets divorced to clear his way for a leadership bid controversy, there are three news stories from the last seven days that causes one to pause and bang our head against the desk in despair.

Firstly, there is this one in the Independent, who report that the number of officials who have left the Whitehall department trying to deliver Brexit is equivalent to more than half of its total staff. They say that the exodus means the average age of workers left in the department is 32, though they are tasked with winning a complex deal that could change Britain for a generation. If that isn't a vote of no confidence in the Brexit process then I don't know what is.

Secondly, we have the on-going saga of independently minded Labour MPs being targeted by Corbyn's shock troops for no confidence motions and presumably deselection. So far, so democratic you might say, except that the latest one gives pause for thought if only for the circumstances of its reporting.

The Guardian tells us that Labour activists are calling for an inquiry after an Iranian state-backed TV station which is banned in the UK carried footage of a local party meeting passing a vote of no confidence in the Enfield North MP, Joan Ryan. Press TV had its licence to broadcast in the UK revoked by the media regulator, Ofcom, in 2012, over claims that editorial decisions were being made in Tehran.

They add that the Press TV footage, which appeared to have been filmed inside the meeting, was carried on the station’s Twitter feed and referred to Ryan, who is the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, as a “pro-Israel MP”. It included the hashtag #WeAreEnfieldNorth:

In an interview with the Telegraph, Ryan, a Labour MP since 1997, said that Iranian journalists had “infiltrated” the party and had targeted her because of her support for Israel: “I’m horrified that they’ve infiltrated the Labour party in this way and I think it needs to be investigated, because it is incredibly serious.”

This tells us everything we need to know about the current state of the Labour Party.

Finally, there is the case of the Minister who admitted publicly that she does not understand the basic fundamentals of her job.

As the Guardian reports, Karen Bradley has admitted that before becoming Northern Ireland secretary she was profoundly ignorant of the country’s political divisions and “slightly scared” of the place. She said she was unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and that unionists did not vote for nationalists – the most elementary fact about Northern Ireland politics:

“I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland,” Bradley told House magazine, a weekly publication for the Houses of Parliament.

“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.

“Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities.”

The fact that Theresa May appointed Bradley to this post in January at an exceptionally sensitive time because of Brexit and the breakdown in Stormont’s power-sharing government tells us all we need to know about the competence of the UK Government. Marina Hyde is particularly scathing about this interview:

For me, I think that quote may be the equivalent of the death blow in Kill Bill. Do you know the one? You get hit just with fingertips, “and then he lets you walk away. But once you’ve taken five steps, your heart explodes in your body, and you fall to the floor, dead.” So with the Northern Ireland secretary’s hot take on Northern Ireland. My mechanism might be shot for good after reading it. I may well be typing my last five steps here.

Clearly, it is not simply the initial imbecility of having no clue about the central facts of Northern Irish politics and history, even though you were 28 (TWENTY EIGHT) when the Good Friday agreement was signed. It is also the second imbecility of thinking you should ever mention that in public, much less as delightedly, as Karen did. “It’s when you realise that,” burbled the secretary of state, “that you can then start to understand some of the things that the politicians say and some of the rhetoric.”

I mean ... ideally, you would start understanding these things some decades before you were the cabinet minister with operational responsibility for arguably the most highly sensitive region of the United Kingdom. Instead, Karen’s breezy “My Learning Curve” speech casts high office as a remedial scheme for the unreachable outliers of Family Fortunes survey respondents. “We asked 100 people what they imagined were the Ladybird-level facts about Northern Ireland …” 

Karen’s answer is the type of WTF-ery that allows even Vernon Kay (VERNON KAY) to mug to camera with the practised eyebrow-raise that says: where do they find these quarterwits? It was previously thought that any challenge to Andrea Leadsom’s position as stupidest cabinet minister would have to hail from the mineral or at least vegetable kingdoms. Or be Chris Grayling. But this is quite sensational from Karen, who places herself in the IDS class at a stroke. Theresa May’s decision to appoint her to this government of all the talentless underscores exactly where we are. If you hadn’t already swallowed the red pill, you may safely consider Karen’s interview as your dose. No going back now. The answer to the question “How low is the bar?” is: the bar is in another hemisphere. The bar is orbiting Jupiter. There is no bar.

It is enough to make me want to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and hide indefinitely, or at least until the inevitable Armageddon these incidents seem to indicate is on its way.

Friday, September 07, 2018

UKIP crossing a line

The fact that Ukip’s annual conference could debate whether to lift a ban on the anti-Islam activist Tommy Robinson becoming a member, tells us all we need to know about that party's move to the far right.

As the Guardian reports, under long-established party rules, former members of the English Defence League, which was formed by Robinson, are banned from joining, along with people who belonged to the British National party.

But Ukip’s leader, Gerard Batten, has strongly backed Robinson, a self-styled freedom-of-speech activist whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, likening him to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

The paper says that the party’s national executive committee will discuss motions this weekend to be voted on at the conference in Birmingham, one of which will ask whether Robinson should be allowed to join.

They add that some senior party members are known to greatly dislike Batten’s support for Robinson, but others are keen to link the party to Robinson, who was freed on bail in August pending a new hearing on whether he was in contempt of court by broadcasting details of a trial subject to reporting restrictions:

He had already been given a suspended sentence for committing contempt during a rape trial in Canterbury after attempting to film the defendants.

Alan Craig, Ukip’s families and children spokesman, told the Kipper Central website that Robinson had become “a global phenomenon representing those who have been excluded and silenced by the globalist liberal elite”.

The Guardian says that the motion comes amid a more general shift in focus for Ukip under Batten, who took over the leadership in February. He has referred to Islam as a “death cult” and has called Muhammad a paedophile.

They add that Batten has also allowed a trio of controversial social media activists into the party, including Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars, a far-right US conspiracy theory website which has argued the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a hoax involving child actors.

This is the fringe party UKIP have become, have always been at its core.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Local councils 'worse then payday lenders'

I have had a few experiences of representing people who are being pursued by their local council for money and in my experience the conclusion of the National Audit Office (NAO) that local councils and government departments are viewed as worse than payday lenders for the heavy-handed way in which they collect debts and manage people in arrears is spot on.

As The Times reports, the NAO has criticised the government for its limited understanding of how problem debt feeds into the economy. They have concluded that: “The government lags behind the retail lending sector in following good management practice,” with only 19 per cent of councils adopting best practice guidelines.

The paper adds that the National Audit Office estimates the cost to taxpayers from people sinking into problem debt is £248 million a year, while the wider economy suffers by £900 million a year. At the same time they say that 81,000 people a year suffer mental health problems from escalating debts:

Lack of communication between different government departments means that different debt collection teams sometimes compete for repayments from the same person, it says.

Public sector organisations are some of the biggest creditors to people in debt trouble. Councils are owed £3 billion in tax arrears and another £336 million in rent arrears. HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions are owed £7.2 billion because of tax credit overpayments and £2.6 billion in benefit overpayments.

The proportion of debt problems reported to Citizens Advice that related to money owed to government rose from 21 per cent in 2011-12 to 40 per cent in 2017-18, according to the National Audit Office. Councils and government departments may be pursuing unpaid debts “too quickly and too aggressively” because of funding pressures, it says.

Thirty-five per cent of people seeking debt advice reported being treated unfairly by councils. That compared with 32 per cent who complained about payday lenders or other short-term credit firms and 22 per cent complaining about high street banks.

Only bailiffs scored worse, with 52 per cent of respondents to a study by the charity Step Change, quoted in the NAO report, saying that they had been treated badly.

Obviously, councils need to get what is owed to them, especially given the pressure that public services are under. But they need to follow proper guidelines in doing so and ensure that their actions do not cause somebody in debt to get into a worse position.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Labour fail to completely clear anti-semitism hurdle

If there was a prize for scoring own goals then Jeremy Corbyn would win it hands down. For just as the Labour NEC finally adopted the all internationally recognised definitions of anti-Semitism, the Labour leader pitched in with an attempt to introduce caveats that would have undermined the whole exercise.

As the Independent reports, Corbyn, in a rare defeat, was forced to withdraw a further statement, because he lacked support, which argued it should not be “regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist”.

That still left those campaigning for change with what they wanted, but the fact that it was the Labour leader who was behind such a toxic amendment effectively devalued the whole exercise. The Jewish Leadership Council accused Corbyn of attempting to undermine the IHRA definition and said its first assessment was based on a disingenuous presentation of what had been agreed.

They and others also attacked the caveat that was agreed by the NEC, a statement which “ensures this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians”. Labour Against Antisemitism, described the “freedom of expression” statement as “a get out of jail card”:

“There can be no caveats, no conditions and no compromises with racism,” a spokesman said.

“The NEC has been told repeatedly that it needs to adopt the IHRA in full, without caveats or conditions, if it wants the Labour Party to begin the process of dealing with its antisemitism crisis.

“It has ignored the requests of the Jewish community and denied the fundamental right of that community to define its own discrimination.”

Labour Friends of Israel echoed the criticism, saying: “A ‘freedom of expression on Israel’ clause is unnecessary and totally undermines the other examples the party has supposedly just adopted.”

After initially welcoming the decision, the Jewish Leadership Council accused Mr Corbyn of attempting to undermine the IHRA definition and said its first assessment was based on a disingenuous presentation of what had been agreed.

Chief executive Simon Johnson said: “It has now become absolutely clear that the leader of the party attempted shamefully to undermine the entire IHRA definition.

“The ‘free speech caveat’ drives a coach and horses through the IHRA definition. It will do nothing to stop antisemitism in the party.

“Now that the NEC has undermined the definition, it is clearly more important to the Labour leader to protect the free speech of those who hate Israel than it is to protect the Jewish community from the real threats that it faces.”

Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who branded Mr Corbyn a “racist and anti-Semite” in a confrontation in July, called it “two steps forward and one step back”.

The test now will be whether the adoption of the code leads Labour to take more effective action against members accused of anti-Semitism. It is likely though that Corbyn's attempt to water down the new definition and the NEC caveat will continue to make things difficult for Labour amongst the Jewish community.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Another Government appeals failure

The UK Government do not have a good experience with appeals processes. As reported here, the majority of people appealing against the decision to deny them disability benefit are now winning their cases. In the first three months of 2018, tribunals ruled in favour of claimants in 69% of cases where people had been turned down for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Assessments for both have been branded ‘a total failure’ and ‘not fit for purpose’.

Now, a similar malaise has hit the Government's process for assessing applications by asylum seekers and other migrants to stay in the UK. The Guardian says that nearly three-quarters of final immigration court appeals brought by the Home Office against rulings allowing these groups of people to stay in the UK are dismissed.

The paper says that the low success rate raises concerns the Home Office is putting people through lengthy and expensive court processes when it has little chance of winning. Whilst one lawyer is quoted as saying that the figures, which will be associated with the “hostile environment” policy, showed the government was needlessly “stopping people getting on with their lives”:

People seeking refuge in the UK are initially given a decision by the Home Office on whether they will be allowed to stay. If their application is rejected, they are entitled to appeal against that decision in an immigration court. In the year from April 2017 to March 2018, 11,974 cases were determined in court, with 4,332 of the Home Office’s decisions being overturned.

Of those decisions granting leave to remain, the Home Office then referred 1,235 to the upper tribunal for further appeal, with 900 (73%) rejected by an independent judge, according to a freedom of information response.

The figures will add to concerns about the treatment of people brought to the immigration court, with lengthy delays often part of the process. People can wait more than a year for an initial appeal to be heard. If the judge then rules they can stay in the UK and the Home Office appeals against that, it may be another year or more before the second hearing.

Advocates for asylum seekers say that during that time people cannot get on with their lives: they are often prevented from working, accessing healthcare or renting a home during this time and are subjected to enormous anxiety. For those who are already vulnerable and traumatised, there are concerns the delay and uncertainty may further damage their mental and physical health.

Of course these figures relate to appeals against successful appeals, but there is still a 37% success rate in overturning the original decision. In both cases it seems that there is a need to review the process to ensure that outcomes are quicker and more equitable.

Monday, September 03, 2018

The real problem is Boris and his Brexit fantasy

The adoption of Churchillian language by Boris Johnson in his bid to lead the Tory Party and become Prime Minister, would be laughable if it were not so ironic.

Churchill may well have stepped up to the plate in his country's hour of need, but his career was almost as chequered as that of Boris, and of course Churchill was a good European, who had a strong commitment to human rights. Churchill did not create the crisis he led us out of. It is a shame that the same cannot be said for Boris.

In this light, Boris Johnson's first newspaper column of the new parliamentary term, in which he attacks Theresa May’s Chequers plan, has to be taken with a pinch of salt. He alleges that May's plan
means the UK is entering Brexit negotiations with a “white flag fluttering”.

As the Guardian reports, Johnson claims “the reality is that in this negotiation the EU has so far taken every important trick. The UK has agreed to hand over £40 billion of taxpayers’ money for two thirds of diddly squat”.

As ever with Boris there is no alternative proposal. He claims that the Chequers' plan means it will be “impossible for the UK to be more competitive, to innovate, to deviate, to initiate, and we are ruling out major free trade deals.”  As if such deals were on the table in the first place?

The Trade Secretary has spent months and months chasing his tail over many thousands of miles and has emerged with (to use Boris' phrase) diddly squat. That is because countries like China, India, Japan and even the USA, gain more by engaging with the European Union, which is a much bigger trade bloc. The UK is way down on their priority list.

But let us not pretend that the European Union is the restraining influence Boris and his fellow travellers like to claim it is. We do trade with non-EU countries and we do so on better terms than are available through the WTO by virtue of us being a member of one of the biggest free trade areas in the world.

About 49% of Britain’s trade is currently with the EU. Another 12% is with 65 non-EU states that have free-trade agreements with Brussels. The most recent, with Japan, was signed in July this year. All of that is in jeopardy because of Brexit.

The reason Theresa May's Chequers' deal is a disaster for the UK, is not because it is too soft, but because like Boris, the assumptions on which it operates are unrealistic and undeliverable. The same is true of Brexit. Chequers is no more acceptable to the EU than it is to the hard line Brexiteers, or pro-Europeans like me.

Real leadership would be standing up mea culpa and telling the voters that they were sold a false premise in the 2016 referendum, based on fantasy and wishful thinking. That our best interests lie within the EU and that the only alternative to that is a no deal Brexit that will devastate our economy for a decade or more, cause thousands of jobs to move across the English Channel and increase our cost of living.

Real leadership would be to give us a chance to vote again on which of those realities we want, now that the truth about Brexit has come out properly. Unfortunately, all of our national leaders, Johnson, May, Corbyn et al, are too engaged in their own little games of self-promotion to embrace the national interest and give us that third plebiscite.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

The plot to replace May with Boris is underway

The Sunday Times reports that Theresa May is facing a fresh threat to her leadership from the man who ran her election campaign, who according to senior Tories is secretly masterminding a bid to destroy her Brexit plan and install Boris Johnson in Downing Street.

They say that Sir Lynton Crosby, the election guru who helped Johnson win two London mayoral elections, has ordered his allies to work with hard-line Brexiteers in the Commons to run a nationwide campaign against the prime minister’s Chequers plan:

One of Crosby’s senior staff at his firm CTF Partners is in close contact with the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexit hardliners run by Jacob Rees-Mogg and a campaign that is seen as a front for Johnson’s leadership ambitions. MPs plan to publish an alternative to May’s plan before the Tory party conference with the backing of both Johnson and David Davis, who resigned from the cabinet over Chequers.

The revelations come as The Sunday Times can reveal that May’s aides have had talks with civil servants about whether to call a general election if her Brexit deal is voted down by MPs. They have also discussed whether she should announce that she will stand down in the year after Brexit.

The revelation that the Tories’ top election strategist is trying to destroy May’s flagship policy will ignite a firestorm in Westminster. Crosby is understood to think that May’s plan — which will keep Britain in permanent close alignment with Brussels — would betray the voters who backed Brexit and hurt the Conservative Party at the next election. The Australian, known as the Wizard of Oz, is also said to be angry that May’s aides sought to blame him for the disastrous 2017 election campaign.

One of Crosby’s staff, David Canzini, is revitalising Change Britain, a pro-Brexit group, to campaign against the Chequers deal and give Johnson a personal platform. He is working closely with former Brexit minister Steve Baker and Stewart Jackson, formerly Davis’s aide. In recent days Canzini’s Twitter feed has featured messages attacking the Chequers deal and retweeting Brexiteers such as Baker, Jackson, Nigel Farage, Owen Paterson, John Redwood and Priti Patel.

A senior Tory said: “Lynton’s firm is working with the ERG to run this campaign to bring down Chequers. It looks like Lynton is hitting back after falling out over the election campaign and is trying to boot out the prime minister. They want to get Boris in.” One of those involved admitted that destroying Chequers would lead to May’s resignation: “If we stop Chequers, there is no way she’ll survive.” 

These revelations come after the Prime Minister ruled out a referendum on whatever Brexit deal she agrees with the EU. The Mirror says that May has been rattled by the success of the People’s Vote ­campaign to reverse Brexit but she has insisted that the 2016 referendum result must stand as the people have made their decision.

Rather bizarrely, she is quoted as saying that: “To ask the question all over again would be a gross betrayal of our ­democracy and a betrayal of that trust.”

Of course nobody is suggesting that what would be a third referendum on the EU, should be asking the same question all over again. The argument is that we need to decide whether the deal that May and her shambolic government comes up with meets the expectations generated by the leave campaign in the 2016 plebiscite. If not then people should have the opportunity to change their mind. How is putting a question to the popular vote a 'betrayal of our democracy'?

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister has painted herself into a corner. Her Chequer's compromise has alienated the Brexiteers, who now want rid of her and her plan, whilst at the same time failing to meet the demands of the EU.

Any chance she might get support from members of her party who want to stay in the EU or who might settle for a softer Brexit, has been scuppered over her intransigence on a confirmatory referendum.

Successful politicians win through because of their ability to build alliances, influence people through persuasion and take principled positions. On all three counts Theresa May is failing badly.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Blunkett calls out 'bullying and thuggery' in Corbyn's Labour

The resignation of Frank Field from Labour is starting to have wider repercussions, with a number of Labour figures speaking out about the way their party has changed over the last few years. The highest profile figure to step up to the mark is former Home Secretary, Lord David Blunkett, who has stated that the resignation of Labour’s longest-serving MP over concerns about anti-Semitism must lead to a "rethink of the Corbyn project” or the party risks “decline and irrelevance”.

As the Independent reports, Blunkett believes that the "bullying and thuggery" of the militant left, which he said made the party unelectable during the Eighties, had now returned and posed a “dangerous" threat to both the Labour movement and democracy. And he labelled the ongoing anti-Semitism scandal a “shambles".

Blunkett's analogy seems quite prescient given the story here, which reports that Derek Hatton wants to re-join Labour Party 32 years after his expulsion for belonging to a Trotskyite organisation. Apparently, the former Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council, and Militant activist, believes that now is the perfect time to officially rejoin the fold.

The Independent says that three more MPs are reported to be considering leaving Labour over Jeremy Corbyn's links to extremists and comments which have been condemned as anti-Semitic by Jewish leaders:

Lord Blunkett said: "Frank Field’s decision, and his concerns over both anti-Semitism and the behaviour of party members indicate a deeper malaise. His actions need to be seen as a catalyst for seismic change and a rethink of the so-called ‘Corbyn project’.

"The commitment to Labour as a 'broad church', which motivated some of those who nominated Jeremy, has been thrown back in their faces and demonstrated that the so-called ‘new style of politics’ is anything but.

"Quite simply, Labour has to put its own house in order as decisively and speedily as possible.

"What matters for the health of our democracy and the continuity of the existence of the Labour party, of which I have been a member for 55 years, are the actions taken and the quality of leadership from Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues over the next seven days.

"Either Jeremy Corbyn can lead a party into gradual decline and irrelevance, or demonstrate that he can lead a party fit for government. The choice is his."

This appears to be a seminal moment for the Labour leader. The question though is not just whether he can deal with his crisis but whether he recognises it as a crisis at all.

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