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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Labour still arguing amongst themselves

Just how incompetent is Labour as an official opposition? Given their performance in propping up the Tories in pursuing our exit from the European Union, the question hardly seems answering. Like the Tories they are divided, ineffective and not listening to changing public opinion.

They are letting the government get away with its own failings through poor and misdirected scrutiny, whilst Corbyn's performances at Prime Minister's Question Time remain tame and unfocussed. But they always have their opposition to austerity and their commitment to fair economic policies to fall back on. Or do they?

This week's budget has been a revelation. Tory Chancellor, Philip Hammond made a rather futile attempt to outflank Labour on public spending, but in attempting to announce the end of austerity, he left himself open to the charge of not doing enough.

More importantly, in raising the tax threshold for higher rate taxpayers, Hammond placed an open goal in front of reputedly the most left-wing shadow chancellor in history. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation published on Tuesday found that the cuts, which will cost the Treasury almost £2.8bn, would overwhelmingly benefit wealthier households, with almost half the giveaway going to the top 10% of earners.

Surprisingly, and as the Guardian reports, McDonnell has managed to kick the ball into the stands. They say that he has sparked a backlash from Labour MPs by insisting that the party would not to oppose these tax cuts for higher earners.

“We’re not going to take money out of people’s pockets. Simple as that,” McDonnell said, despite pressure from some colleagues to oppose the giveaway, which was one of the most eye-catching measures in Philip Hammond’s pre-Brexit budget. That pressure covers the full range of opinion within the Labour Party:

Alison McGovern, the chair of the centre-left Progress group, which is associated with Labour, said: “We can’t support spending more on tax cuts for quite wealthy people than on dealing with the universal credit mess.”

The Tottenham MP David Lammy said: “These tax cuts leave a bitter taste in my mouth because they help high earners in the City far more than my constituents in Tottenham, some of whom this winter will be facing the choice between eating and heating. I believe it is a mistake for the Labour party to support this policy as it will lead to more inequality, not less.”

The home affairs select committee chair, Yvette Cooper, said: “This is wrong. I cannot support it.”

McDonnell, however, was unrepentant. “We’re not going to take funding away from people. Some of these are middle-earners, headteachers and people like that, who’ve had a rough time of it, as well as everyone else,” he said.

Instead of reversing Hammond’s giveaways, McDonnell said Labour would implement its own tax rises, including a new top rate of 45p for those earning over £80,000 a year, and reversing Conservative cuts to corporation tax.

“We want a fair taxation system, where the top 5% pay a bit more,” he said. In response to criticism from the Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, who said the tax cuts would be “hard to justify at any time,” McDonnell said: “I completely understand where Andy’s coming from, but what we’re into is trying to ensure we have a fair taxation system based upon the new proposals on income tax that we’ve put forward, which he supported.”

When Labour, despite its left-wing rhetoric, is divided over whether to oppose measures that benefit the better-off then we know that they have lost the plot as an opposition.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Austerity is still alive and kicking

The most significant announcement by the Chancellor in yesterday's budget had nothing to do with taxation, public expenditure or even the state of the economy. It was the single line about Brexit in which he signalled that austerity will continue for five more years if Britain crashes out of the EU with no deal.

It was a clear warning to MPs threatening to vote down Theresa May’s Brexit plans but it also underlined the significance of the ongoing talks and the threats emanating from the DUP, which may well dismantle the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

Of course even setting that warning to one side, yesterday's announcements were not enough to satisfy those hoping for a complete U-turn on the agenda of the last ten years. As the Independent reports, the respected Resolution Foundation think tank, said: “The chancellor has significantly eased – but not ended – austerity for public services. However, tough times are far from over.”

It warned that, after other spending protections for defence and foreign aid, the plan “probably means more cuts for other departments”.

And the Child Poverty Action Group seized on the failure to end the four-year freeze on family benefits – cuts in real terms – as proof there was no “substance to the claim that austerity is over”.

It is not just a no-deal Brexit that threatens the Chancellor's rosy future however. Treasury analysis has found that Brexit would leave the UK worse off under three possible scenarios: a comprehensive free trade deal, single market access and no deal at all.

The dark shadow of Brexit is looming over everything the government does. If we want to end austerity then we need to stay in the EU. Any other outcome will leave us floundering.

Monday, October 29, 2018

European Health Insurance card now at risk

When I went on holiday to Europe this year I carried alongside my passport a small plastic card that guarantees me medical treatment if I should fall ill. Without this, the costs of any hospital treatment could well be prohibitive.

The interchangeability of health care is a major benefit of membership of the EU and it was rather hoped that negotiations around Brexit would at least protect this for those living and travelling within the European Community. Alas that may well not be the case.

According to the Independent, this scheme is at fresh risk after it emerged that emergency legislation will be looking at other solutions instead. As with other bad news, the announcement of the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill, which is legislation never previously proposed by the government, was slipped out on a Friday afternoon:

An EHIC gives Britons the right to state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in another EU or European Economic Area (EEA) country.

It covers treatment that is “medically necessary” on the same basis as enjoyed by a resident of that country, so either free or at a much-reduced cost.

Pre-existing medical conditions and routine maternity care are also covered, provided someone has not travelled specifically to give birth or seek treatment.

The EHIC scheme pays for 250,000 medical treatments each year and UK travellers have saved around £1.2bn since it began in 2006, according to figures released last year.

Without the cards, it is feared that the cost of travel insurance will soar, as insurers find themselves liable for medical treatment that is currently free of charge.

Now the emergency legislation has been unveiled by the department of health, to be rushed through before next March in case the Brexit talks fail.

It will “establish the legal basis to fund and implement vital reciprocal healthcare schemes and share necessary data after we leave the EU”, the department said.

Officials stressed the bill would still allow the EHIC scheme to survive after Brexit “subject to an agreement with the EU”.

But they admitted it was being brought forward because plans for it to rollover until the end of 2020, as part of the planned transition period, were now at risk.

What other benefits will we lose as a result of Brexit? It is funny how none of this was mentioned on the side of a bus by the Leave side during the referendum campaign.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

How underfunding sabotaged Universal Credit

As we await Monday's budget and note the increasing pressure on the UK Government to fix the problems in Universal Credit, it is worth noting the views of Deven Ghelani, a former Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) adviser.

He believes that Universal credit has been fatally undermined by the Tories’ other brutal welfare cuts, namely £12bn of “salami-sliced cuts” that were introduced by the former Chancellor after the 2015 General Election, once he could shake himself clear of Nick Clegg's veto on such a course of action.

The Independent says that this fresh criticism of Conservative welfare cuts comes amid a blizzard of pressure on the chancellor to act on the crisis surrounding universal credit in Monday’s Budget:

* A Commons committee is calling for the extension of universal credit to be shelved until the DWP can show it will not push “one more claimant over the edge”.

* Labour has published 10 demands for immediate changes, including slashing the five week wait for payments, and an end to sanctions and split payments (to protect victims of domestic violence).

* The Children’s Society is warning families will lose up to £2,460 per year without a rethink, including 100,000 disabled children who will be as much as £147 a month worse off.

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is expected to announce some shift on universal credit after as many as 30 Conservative backbenchers threatened a revolt.

The rebels want around £2bn to protect the hardest-hit groups – single parents and second earners in families – before a rollout the Department for Work and Pensions has already delayed.

Vince Cable has also joined in this call for action.

The paper adds that Mr Ghelani, who advised Iain Duncan Smith on introducing universal credit at the start of the decade, has pointed to the vast other welfare cuts as the “biggest” cause of the current problems:

“The core issue is the £12bn of salami-sliced cuts which means people on benefits are already under huge financial strain, even before they are asked to manage the change onto universal credit,” he said. “There is more to come in the years ahead, when universal credit is already less generous than the benefit system it replaces.

“On top of that, the local organisations helping to deliver it are also under strain so are less able to help claimants, and the DWP itself is having to implement it as it has to make big savings.”

Mr Ghelani, who now runs a welfare consultancy called Policy in Practice, insisted the shake-up could still be a success, even if it is far from “the promised land” envisaged.

But he added: “The problems with tax credits in the last decade, and with housing benefit in the 1980s, were only solved by spending lots of money – you can’t do welfare reform on the cheap.”

It is a mess that needs to be tackled urgently if yet more people are not to suffer the consequences of the botched introduction of this new benefit.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The ill-advised use of Parliamentary privilege

I am not one of those who believe that Peter Hain's use of Parliamentary privilege to make accusations against Sir Philip Green is an abuse that should herald a restriction on the rights of Parliamentarians. Nor do I agree with lawyers who argue that using the rights afforded to MPs and Lords to breach court injunctions is undermining the rule of law. as reported in the Guardian.

However, I do think that Peter Hain was ill-advised to use the privilege afforded to him in this way, especially in the light of subsequent revelations that he is a paid adviser to Gordon Dadds LLP, the law firm that represented the Daily Telegraph in the Philip Green injunction case.

The legal process was still underway and it was likely that common sense would have prevailed. Parliamentary privilege in my view is there as a last resort, not as a means of frustrating the courts. It should be used to secure justice where that is not available.

As it is Lord Hain's intervention appears to be one arising from impatience rather than the result of considered deliberation on the merits of his actions.

Of course there is an argument that putting allegations in the public domain in this way may well help to forestall abuses of power by rich and powerful employers and open up a debate on the issue of harassment and how it may be prevented. There is some real merit in taking that course of action.

However, I also understand that some of those who had signed confidentiality agreements do not wish to have their names enter the public domain, do not want to re-visit some very distressing events in their past, and do not want an intrusive media poking around in their private lives. Did Peter Hain consider the wishes of these people when he stood up in the House of Lords?

Clearly, the courts did. That is why the injunction was granted in the first place, so that all these matters could be properly considered before the Telegraph would be permitted to publish its story. By overriding that process Hain has short-circuited those deliberations. That cannot be right.

Friday, October 26, 2018

How Brexit will hit young people

Another day, yet another report highlighting the toxic impact on the UK and on people's standards of living if we leave the EU.

The Independent tells us about new research by an Oxford economist which has found that young people will lose as much as £108,000 in earnings by 2050 if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal. This is more than three times the cost of deposit on a first home and shows that the young will “lose the most” from leaving the EU.

Even under a “soft Brexit” young people will be £32,000 worse off, because every exit scenario will make the UK poorer:

The analysis calculates the loss of earnings from the Treasury’s own leaked projections for the damage from Brexit, which was published earlier this year after a huge row.

It said a no-deal Brexit, leaving Britain trading with Europe on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, would reduce GDP by 8 per cent over 15 years.

Leaving with a “Canada-style” free trade agreement, as favoured by Boris Johnson, would see growth cut by 5 per cent – while even staying inside the single market, a “Norway” deal, would deliver a 2 per cent hit.

The research turns those figures into the impact on earnings which, because the economy would be smaller permanently than if the UK stayed in the EU, would linger to 2050 and beyond.

A WTO Brexit would cut total earnings by between £44,000 and £108,000 – with £76,000 the most likely cost – while “Canada” would cost £30,000-£72,000 and “Norway” £7,000-£32,000.

The short-term hit from a no-deal departure would also be significant, the study says, costing 18 to 21-year-olds £675 a year and 22 to 29-year-olds £830 a year.

The paper adds that other ways the young will be punished by Brexit, including:

* The loss of freedom of movement – with 78 per cent of 18 to 20-year-olds saying they will miss the right to live and work across the continent.

* They are disproportionately agency and part-time workers – where EU protections were resisted by the UK and are “most at risk of repeal after Brexit”.

* The threat to EU youth education, training and employment initiatives – including the Erasmus+ scheme, allowing students to live and work abroad.

* The minimum income threshold for UK nationals to bring foreign spouses or children into the country is set to be extended to EU nationals.

* Some data protection rights will be lost – which will “particularly affect a generation who have grown up online”.

It is little wonder that polling shows that 84 per cent of 18-20-year-olds would vote to remain in the EU if given the opportunity to do so.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

UKIP on the gravy train again?

I have no problem with full-time politicians receiving what are effectively redundancy payments when they lose their seats. Nor would I deny them a pension, which they would have paid into during their time serving constituents. Thus this article in the Guardian comes as no surprise.

The paper reports that British MEPs have been given details of transition payments that could see the longest-serving eligible for six-figure sums, as well as instructions on clearing their offices before Brexit day.

They add that the UK’s 73 members of the European parliament received confirmation on Tuesday that those under pensionable age would be entitled to claim the allowance after 29 March 2019:

All MEPs are entitled to a transition allowance linked to their length of service in the parliament to bridge their move into a new job. MEPs who have served one term could get a maximum pre-tax payment of €50,900 (£44,930), while an MEP in office since 1999 could receive €169,680 before tax.

MEPs at the EU retirement age of 63 are not entitled to the transition payment, as they move straight on to pensions. MEPs are expected to inform the parliament and give up the transition payments once they have new jobs.

We are told that British MEPs are leaving the parliament nearly three months before the official end of their mandate in June because Brexit day falls before European elections between 23 and 26 May 2019:

British MEPs’ assistants in Brussels will receive the equivalent of one month’s salary and a resettlement allowance. To help to wind down their work, British MEPs will get a reduced office allowance of €6,624 between April and June. The EU will pay for up to 15 boxes of office equipment to be shipped back to the UK.

The controversy however, revolves around UKIP MEPs, who actively campaigned to abolish their own jobs and are now going to reap the reward. What is more their attendance at this briefing session belied UKIP's previous poor turnout at business sessions of the European Parliament:

The pro-remain MEP Julie Girling, expelled from the Tories after clashing with the leadership over Brexit, tweeted that she had “never seen so many Ukip members attend a meeting in Strasbourg before”.

The majority of UKIP MEPs, however, have attended at least 70% of European parliament votes, not far off the average of Labour and Conservative MEPs, according to VoteWatch Europe data on the 2014-19 session shared with the Guardian.

The UKIP voting average is brought down by the party’s former leaders Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Farage has attended 40% of roll-call votes, the worst voting record of all British MEPs at the European parliament, according to VoteWatch data, although he was also rated one of the most influential members. Nuttall, who had a stormy six-and-a-half months as party leader, attended 52% of votes.

Farage is due to return to his full MEP salary (€8,484 pre-tax per month) in October, having being docked half of it for 10 months for alleged misspending of EU funds.

As one of the UK’s longest serving MEPs, elected in 1999, Nigel Farage would be entitled to a maximum pre-tax golden parachute of €169,680 (£149,810), if he is unable to find a job after Brexit.

However the European parliament expects MEPs to forego these payment once they have a new job. The former UKIP leader has earned up to £700,000 for his TV and radio work over the last four years - far more than his MEP salary - and hopes to continue his LBC radio show after Brexit.

For some then, the gravy train is still running.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Welsh Government's financial and enviornmental black hole

Whilst debate rages around a near £2 billion scheme that will drive a three lane concrete highway through five SSSIs and lead to a further increase in polluting traffic on the M4, it is worth noting that the proposed Newport by-pass is not the only way that the Welsh Government is breaching its own Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

As this Wales on-line article points out the Welsh Government is still subsidising an entirely unnecessary air route between Anglesey and Cardiff, largely for the benefit of politicians and civil servants.

The website reveals that sustaining the air service between south and north Wales cost taxpayers £156 per passenger last year. This is £23 per passenger higher than the figure recently given by the Welsh Government to the committee which scrutinises government spending.

The number of passenger journeys on the weekdays-only flights increased by 38% in 2017-18, the first full year after a new operator, Eastern Airways, took over. However, total subsidy for the flights exceeded £2m for the first time in 2017-18.

The Welsh Government is using public money to underwrite the most polluting form of transport when it would have made more sense to have subsidised better rail services between North and South Wales instead.

So much for their commitment to the environment and value for money.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Those inconvenient expert opinions on Brexit

Famously, Michael Gove declared during the 2016 referendum campaign that 'Britain has had enough of experts'.

What he meant of course was that as he was unable to answer perfectly reasonable questions about some of the misleading statements being put out by the leave campaign, he had had enough of experts proving him wrong all the time. It was a classic deflection response to awkward questioning.

Nevertheless those inconvenient experts continue to speak put on Brexit and the devastating impact it will have on the UK. The latest warning comes from World-leading scientists and mathematicians from across Europe, who tell us that a hard Brexit could undermine vital research within the UK.

The Independent reports that French biologist Jules Hoffmann, Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen and ​German biologist Christiane Nusslein-Volhard are among 29 Nobel Prize winning scientists and six winners of the prestigious Fields Medal warning that leaving the EU could establish barriers to scientific partnerships that have provided a massive boost for European research:

The call was reinforced by a survey at the UK’s biggest biomedical lab, the Francis Crick Institute, which found 97 per cent of its researchers believed a hard Brexit would be bad for British science. Half also expressed a desire to leave the UK due to Brexit.

Sir Paul Nurse, the institute’s director and one of the letter’s signees, said a hard Brexit “could cripple UK science and the government needs to sit up and listen”.

“The overwhelming negativity of scientists towards a hard Brexit should be a wake-up call to the country and the government,” he said.

“We need a deal that replaces the science funding lost because of Brexit, that preserves freedom of movement for talented scientists, and that makes them feel welcome in this country.”

Scientists have been vocal in their criticism of the government’s approach to leaving the EU, which they say will lose them millions in research funding and throw their projects into disarray.

Nobody expects Michael Gove to listen to such siren voices of course, but it would be nice if MPs, and in particular the leadership of the Labour Party sat up and took notice, so that we can have a people's vote on whatever deal Theresa May comes back with.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Is the world a less safer place?

I well remember that moment in history when Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev. It was especially historic because a man who won the US Presidency by campaigning against the evil empire of the USSR, was able to moderate his views in the face of the facts and took the opportunity to make the world a safer place.

Now, 31 years later, we have another populist politician walking away from that agreement for what appears to be legitimate reasons, but on past form could be just ego or ideology. Donald Trump has told so many untruths, has modified his position so many times (often several times during the same day) and played to the crowd so often, that frankly nobody knows whether to believe him or not when he cites national security reasons for starting yet another arms race.

My instincts are that even with Russian infringements, it is better to remain within a treaty framework that makes the world a safer place and try to work through the treaty to put things right, rather than walk away altogether and start to commission more missiles. I rather hoped that would be the UK position as well.

Unfortunately, as this article outlines the UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson is backing Trump. He has called on the Kremlin to “get its house in order”:

“Our close and long-term ally of course is the United States and we will be absolutely resolute with the United States in hammering home a clear message that Russia needs to respect the treaty obligation that it signed,” Mr Williamson said.

“We of course want to see this treaty continue to stand but it does require two parties to be committed to it and at the moment you have one party that is ignoring it.”

“It is Russia that is in breach and it is Russia that needs to get its house in order,” added the defence secretary, who is in the US while the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Elizabeth visits New York.

It is difficult to gauge whether this support is justified without having all the facts at our disposal, whether Williamson feels that he has to act tough because he has Prime Ministerial ambitions and such talk plays well with the Tory grassroots, or whether he is acting in this way because the UK is still desperately casting around for post-Brexit allies.

What is clear however, is that the world is a less safer place, another cold war beckons and that as both sides ramp-up the rhetoric we are losing control of events. We do not need the UK to be yet another Donald Trump acolyte. Our role should be to help bring the two sides together and rescue a very important peace initiative. Why are our Ministers not doing this?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Marching for democracy and clarity

Unfortunately, I was abroad last week and was still disembarking at Bristol airport as 700,000 people marched through central London demanding a people's vote on Brexit.

If I had been in the country I would have joined them, because we are still looking for clarity as to what exactly Brexit means. And once we know then surely we have the right to vote on whether it is acceptable to us and anything like what was sold to voters in June 2016.

Some commentators and all the Brexiteers, when faced with this argument, tell us that we have already had a people's vote and that they voted to leave the EU. There is no doubting this, but putting aside the lies, the cheating and the illegal activity on the leave side, nobody is asking for a rerun.

In a nutshell, people voted on a non-specific proposition that we should leave the EU. There were no choices on that ballot paper as to what arrangements would be put in place following this exodus, only vague promises, none of which have proved to be possible.

A people's vote should be on the specific exit proposals, so that we have a democratic choice as to whether they are acceptable to us or not, and if not to stay in the EU.

Brexiteers also argue that if remain had won the 2016 plebiscite then we would not have countenanced a further referendum. That is correct. A remain victory would have been for the status quo. A leave vote however will lead to fundamental change and it is right that voters have a say on whether that change is acceptable or not.

Of course that leaves us with the question as to whether a people's vote will ever happen? Politicians have a habit of ignoring large demonstrations. It is only when they start to lose at the ballot box that they sit up and take notice. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer has it about right:

Marches are good for the morale of a cause. They can give momentum and energy to a campaign. It can be a fun and sociable way to spend a Saturday. But those campaigning for another referendum need to know this. Marches by themselves are never going to produce another plebiscite. It is possible that the country will get a last-gasp chance to change its mind and call the whole damn thing off, but that opportunity depends on MPs. It can happen only if sufficient of them are persuaded that a further referendum is the right thing to do or the expedient thing to do. And if not those, then that throwing the question back to the people is the only thing left to do. 

As Rawnsley suggests the focus of the campaign now has to shift towards persuading the MPs that that best way out of the impasse they find themselves in is another referendum. More importantly, Labour have to get off the fence.

Surely Corbyn must realise that one of the reasons his party are still 4 points behind this shambolic government in the polls is because of his insistence on ignoring the logic of the position the country is in and failing to respect the views of left-leaning voters that we need to revisit Brexit at the polls.

There is still time to pull this country back from the Brexit-shaped abyss that faces it. But only if the politicians step up to the mark and make themselves heard as well.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Charities gagged by Ministers

There were echoes of a previous battle in the Welsh Assembly in today's Times, who report that charities and companies working with universal credit claimants have been banned from criticising or harming the reputation of the work and pensions secretary Esther McVey.

The paper says that at least 22 organisations have been required to sign gagging clauses as part of their involvement with programmes to help people back to work. The contracts, worth a total of £1.8 billion, state that groups receiving the money must “pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of the work and pensions secretary.

In addition, they must “not do anything which may attract adverse publicity” to her, damage her reputation or harm the public’s confidence in her:

This newspaper has found at least 22 contractors, including charities, who have had to sign gagging clauses as part of their involvement in back-to-work programmes run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Although the schemes are not directly involved in the delivery of universal credit, they involve organisations working with benefit claimants, including those on universal credit, to help them to find jobs. These contractors see the effects of universal credit first hand as they have meetings with claimants who are looking for work, organise placements for them and provide them with advice once they have found a job.

Under one £1.7 billion “employment and health related services” programme, 11 suppliers signed contracts with the DWP in January last year. Those suppliers included Shaw Trust, a charity for unemployed people, the outsourcing company G4S and the disability employment company Remploy. The contracts, which run until 2021, include a clause on universal credit stating that the organisations must support the policy’s implementation where it affects their work.

There is also a “publicity” clause which states that the organisation “shall pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation of the Authority and shall not do anything which may damage the reputation of the Authority; bring the Authority into disrepute; attract adverse publicity to the Authority; or harm the confidence of the public in the Authority”. The “Authority” is defined in the contract as the secretary of state for work and pensions.

All but two of the contracts were signed while Damian Green was work and pensions secretary. The other schemes that involve the clauses include those to encourage employment for troubled families, disadvantaged people, those aged 50 and over and people with mental health problems.

This is of course one of the weaknesses of the third sector. Because they are dependent on the government for funding and contracts, they are constrained from acting independently and criticising ministers when they deserve it.

A similar situation blew up in Wales back in 2015 when women's groups were effectively instructed to support defective legislation on violence against women. Groups who had lobbied AMs for changes to the bill were forced to back down under government pressure.

This is no way to run a democracy.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The profits being made from Theresa May's 'hostile environment'

If this article in the Guardian is anything to go by, then there is money to be made in Theresa May's 'hostile environment'.

The paper says that the Home Office has paid a handful of private contractors hundreds of millions of pounds to run the UK’s immigration removal centres, but no one knows for certain just how profitable the industry is.

Just one of the 10 UK facilities is run by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, but the rest are contracted out to outsourcing firms G4S, Mitie, Serco and the US-owned GEO Group.

However, any attempt to secure some transparency has been foiled by the fact that commercial confidentiality agreements mean the Home Office and outsourcing companies are not obliged to publish detailed financial information about immigration detention centres in the UK. What is available is the value of some contracts when they are awarded:

Earlier this year, Mitie won what is believed to be the largest immigration detention contract ever awarded, valued at more than £500m. The contract will cover a range of services and it is not known how much of this is for management of removal centres.

The profitability of detention facilities has proved to be a contentious issue for the contractors. A Guardian investigation last year pointed to a 20.7% profit margin at the G4S-owned Brook House in 2016, while at Tinsley House the margin was 41.5%.

Both figures appeared to be above the agreed margin set out in the contracts. The G4S executive, Peter Neden, refused to divulge the true margin to a parliamentary committee after the allegations emerged.

GEO Group, which operates Dungavel House, Scotland’s only detention centre, may be making up to 30% profits on its contract, according to an analysis by Corporate Watch.

Nice work if you can get it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The 'forgotten' female war poet

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, the Guardian has a fascinating article on the 'forgotten' female war poet, Mary Borden.

Despite spending a large part of my degree studying some of the war poets, I was unaware of Mary Borden's existence and her poetry. She certainly does not appear in any of the anthologies that I possess, which is a shame as she appears to have a unique perspective on the war.

The paper says that a love poem written from the frontline of the Somme by this “great forgotten voice of the first world war”, the American author, heiress, suffragette and nurse Mary Borden, will form the heart of an event at the Tower of London to mark the centenary of Armistice Day:

'Borden’s poem, the third in a sequence entitled Sonnets to a Soldier, was written for a young British officer with whom she had an affair while running a field hospital during the first world war. It will be the basis for a choral work by the artist and composer Mira Calix, accompanying a light show that will fill the Tower of London moat from 4-11 November with thousands of individual flames, in the build-up to the 100th anniversary of peace.

Opening: “If you this very night should ride to death / Straight from the piteous passion of my arms,” the poem was not published during Borden’s lifetime. It is, according to Borden expert Professor Paul O’Prey, “the only love poem I know about the battle of the Somme”.

Her life story is extraordinary:

Borden was married to a Scottish missionary with three children when, in 1915, at the age of 29, she persuaded the French army to let her fund and run a field hospital as close to the battlefront as possible. The hospital treated 25,000 soldiers in its first six weeks. In 1916, she met the young British officer Louis Spears, writing of the encounter: “My apron is stained with mud and blood; I am too tired to take it off. My feet are burning lumps as I hobble to open the door. A young officer stands there. He too is splattered with mud; his face is haggard.”

They began an affair; Spears left the love poems Borden wrote to him at the flat of an ex-girlfriend, who sent them to Borden’s husband. “He had had enough – he divorced her and she lost her children for a number of years,” said O’Prey.

In 1929, Borden published The Forbidden Zone, which contained stories and poems about her wartime experiences. “It was my business to know which of the wounded could wait and which could not. I had to decide for myself. There was no one to tell me,” she wrote. The book did not include the love poems, which were only published for the first time three years ago, as Poems of Love and War, edited by O’Prey.

“She wrote a series of extraordinary poems about being at war, including The Song of the Mud. She was very much like Walt Whitman, free-spirited, writing almost a stream of consciousness, an outpouring of thoughts and feelings,” said O’Prey, who was not surprised the love poems weren’t published in her lifetime: “They were quite intimate, personal and passionate – slightly erotic in a very disguised way … too private.”

Borden went on to marry Spears, who became a Conservative MP and a general in the second world war. She set up and ran a mobile ambulance unit that operated across France, north Africa and the Middle East during that conflict.

It sounds like the show at the Tower of London is well worth attending both for the choral performance, and the display, but also to remember the millions who gave their lives during the two World Wars and other conflicts.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Labour to u-turn on universal credit, but to where?

The fact that Universal Credit is flawed and needs to be reformed is widely accepted by anybody who has come into contact with it. That though does not alter the fact that the when it was introduced the concept of a combined benefit, which incentivised people to find work, had cross-party support.

This article in the Independent, however, indicates that Labour has now undertaken a complete about-turn on this position and want to abolish the benefit altogether. They say that John McDonnell has confirmed that Labour would scrap the universal credit benefit system saying “it’s just not sustainable, it’ll have to go”:

It follows reports that work and pensions secretary Esther McVey briefed cabinet colleagues that the system could lead to some families losing up to £2,400 a year as it is rolled out across the country. Watch more

Mr McDonnell said to Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “I think most people have now come to the conclusion it has got to be scrapped. I’ve been listening to people over the last few weeks about the rollout in their particular areas. I’ve been looking at what the government has said, how they’re seeking to reform it – the reforms haven’t worked.

“I think we’re at that stage now where it’s not sustainable anymore. It’s not a system that can work. It’s not a system that’s providing the safety net that people expect when they need support.

“I think we’re moving to a position now where it’s just not sustainable, it’ll have to go.”

If Labour really has come to the conclusion that Universal Credit is unreformable, then, by all means, they should set out their stall and justify that position. However, the real questions must focus on what they propose to put in its place, how long it will take to develop an alternative and at what cost?

As yet Labour does not appear to have an alternative. Perhaps they should produce one before plunging the system and the lives of the people it serves through yet more turmoil and expense.

Monday, October 08, 2018

A pending climate change disaster

I have been aware of climate change warnings for my entire adult life, so much so that when the Times tells us about a UN report which warns that global carbon dioxide emissions must almost halve within 12 years to avoid a catastrophic loss of coral reefs and Arctic ice, intense floods and droughts, it makes me wonder whether it is now all too late.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that preventing the worst effects of climate change will require “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” costing £1.8 trillion a year. The changes include a rapid switch to electric vehicles, huge expansion of renewable energy and closing hundreds of coal-fired power stations.

They go on to recommend that the global average temperature should be limited to 0.5C in addition to the 1C increase that has already occurred since pre-industrial times. It is a report, written by 91 scientists from 40 countries and based on 6,000 scientific papers and yet I have got to the stage whereby I am sceptical that anybody in authority is listening, and if they are whether they are capable of delivering on these changes?

Moving one country in the right direction is hard enough, reforming the practices of 195 in such a short space of time, seems impossible. But what are the consequences if we don't at least try? The Times gives us the scientists' verdict:

A 2C rise would result in the loss of 99 per cent of coral reefs, the disappearance of Arctic ice one summer in ten and the sea level rising an extra 10cm, inundating many coastal communities, the report said. It would also leave twice as many species facing a loss of habitat compared with a rise of 1.5C.

Hundreds of millions of people would be at greater risk of poverty, particularly in Africa, southeast Asia and Central and South America where yields of maize, rice and wheat would decline. It said that global warming was already causing more extreme weather, rising sea levels and loss of Arctic ice.

It calculated that CO2 emissions must fall by 45 per cent on 2010 levels by 2030 and be at “net zero” by 2050 to have “no or limited overshoot of 1.5C”. That means balancing the amount of carbon released by humans by sucking CO2 from the atmosphere.

Limiting the increase to 2C would require emissions to fall 20 per cent by 2030. This would still be extremely challenging because global emissions rose by 1.6 per cent last year.

The IPCC said that the proportion of global electricity generated by burning coal would have to have fall from about 38 per cent to “close to 0 per cent” by 2050 to limit warming to 1.5C. Gas-fired power would have to fall from 23 per cent to 8 per cent.

We are facing a potential global catastrophe. We really need to be doing something about it.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Badger cull protesters confronted by armed police

Those of us who lived through the abortive Welsh badger cull, nearly eight years ago now, will not be surprised at the UK Government's tactics in support of their own slaughter on the other side of Offa's Dyke.

It is worth noting, in the light of the repositioning of Plaid Cymru as a left wing movement for independence, that back in 2010 a Plaid Cymru Minister presided over Government contractors wearing balaclavas and sunglasses so as to hide their identities, forcing their way onto people's land so as to carry out legally-sanctioned surveys. And when landowners challenged them and sought to verify their identity they were arrested.

Plains clothes police monitored protest meetings and as one Pembrokeshire farmer reported in the Western Mail, police were also stopping motorists and searching them under anti-terrorist legislation.

The situation in England is apparently becoming just as bad, with the full apparatus of the state being deployed behind those carrying out the rather haphazard, cruel and ineffective slaughter of badgers.

The Mirror reports that badger cull protesters were confronted by armed police as they tried to film marksmen getting ready to kill the creatures.

These police officers had allegedly been told that the protesters were armed. In fact the only people who were carrying firearms prior to the arrival of the police were the government's contractors. One of the protesters recounts what happened:

One of the protesters, 22-year-old Chris Gillett, told how campaigners became involved in the stand-off after confronting marksmen looking for badgers to shoot.

He said: “On spotting shooters with our thermal scope we walked towards them with our torches on.

“When we got them in sight there were two shooters in full camouflage who had high-powered rifles around their backs.

“We noticed one on the phone who said, ‘They’re here now and shining torches in my face. Can you get a patrol to us?’

“At this point we spotted three vehicles racing up the lane towards us.

“We stood still while one officer spoke to the shooters for a brief moment before telling them to stand to the side.

“Officers then turned and pointed their loaded rifles at the three saboteurs.

“We were instructed to place anything we had in our hands on the floor - two torches and a mobile phone - and to put our hands on our heads.

“One by one they instructed us to walk backwards towards the officers with our hands still on our heads.”

The trio say they were held under Section 1 of the Firearms Act before being let go.

“The only people with weapons in the area were the shooters. All three saboteurs were searched and nothing was found,” he added.

Any government carrying out such a policy, against the wishes of the majority of the people it supposedly represents, whilst using armed police to enforce its will, is not acting democratically. For Wales in 2010, now read Cheshire, England.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Brexit divorce bill rockets

Those who are still suffering from the delusion that we will be £350 million a week better off from leaving the EU need to read this article in the Independent, which details how the cost of legal obligations that the UK has entered into is rising every day.

The paper says that in the early stages of negotiations Britain agreed to pay certain costs like the those of British EU officials’ pensions, as well as honouring guarantees for EU projects it had already made. Both sides stopped short of putting an official figure on the future payments, in what was seen at the time as an attempt to soften the political blow for the Prime Minister.

Instead, negotiators set a formula to work out how much Britain would have to pay, though unofficial estimates have generally converged on a net figure of around £39 billion, contingent on a withdrawal agreement being signed. However, the inputs to that formula look set to rise faster than expected, meaning the bill is likely to be higher than anticipated:

The European Court of Auditors said in a report released on Thursday that EU’s pension liabilities have unexpectedly increased to 73.1 billion euros in 2017 – up from a previous estimate of 67.2 billion euros.

The so-called “contingent liabilities” – the guarantees on investment projects – have also somewhat increased, too. These are up to 123 billion euros in 2017 from 115.3 euros the previous year.

This latter category may never trigger payments, however, if the projects do not fail – as they are simply guarantees.

Britain has also agreed to pay its existing EU budget contribution to 2020, a 6.3 billion euro component of the divorce bill which is unchanged by the new figures.

Using an on-line currency calculator, and putting aside the contingent liabilities, I make that nearly £70 billion in total that the UK is now committed to paying on exit, or £1.342 billion a week. Trying putting that on the side of a bus.

Friday, October 05, 2018

More ambivalence from Plaid Cymru's leader on Brexit

He may have said that he wants the UK to remain within the EU and that he supports a People's Vote to enable that to happen, but one cannot help but feel that the new Plaid Cymru Leader remains ambivalent towards Brexit, and is secretly hoping that we leave so that he can advance his Independence agenda.

This latest interview with Adam Price certainly reinforces that impression, as he tells the BBC that if there is a "hard" Irish border and the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union "the appetite for Scottish independence and Irish unity" would be "insatiable". The broadcaster adds that Price warned of a Wales "swallowed into an 'England and Wales' entity where we are at the mercy of Westminster":

Mr Price said Brexit was threatening a "constitutional crisis - with or without a deal".

"If the Brexiteers in Westminster have their way we will be out of the single market and customs union and with a hard border on the island of Ireland," he said.

"The appetite for Scottish independence and Irish unity will become insatiable."

Welsh independence, Mr Price said, "must be on the table" as "only by taking our future into our own hands can we ensure that our country isn't swallowed into an 'England and Wales' entity where we are at the mercy of Westminster".

The Plaid Cymru leader said that if his party was in government after the 2021 election in Wales, it would "put a Welsh Independence Referendum Act on the statute book at the earliest possible opportunity".

This would allow a referendum "by the end of the decade at the latest, or earlier should there be a material change in the UK's constitutional landscape", he said.

Price's clarity about Plaid Cymru's ultimate aim of independence within ten years is welcome as it at least allows the party's friends and foes to define the entity they are working for or against. However, his emphasis on what he views as at least one positive outcome of Brexit, as a phoenix rising from the ashes, does continue to raise questions about his commitment to stopping it.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The threat to manufacturing jobs

The Tories may well be keen to play down the impact of Brexit on the economy and on jobs as 'Project Fear' but it is not just politicians who are sounding off about this, it is the men and women who actually make the decisions, and who have the fate of people's jobs in their hands.

And so, as the Guardian reports, the Japanese carmaker Nissan has warned the government that serious disruption will be caused to its huge manufacturing operation in the north-east of England if the UK fails to secure a deal with the EU that avoids a hard Brexit:

Carlos Ghosn, the chair of Nissan, has described its British operations as “a European investment based in the UK”, which employs almost 8,000 people, mostly at its factory near Sunderland. A further 30,000 people are employed in UK companies supplying Nissan.

Like the other car manufacturers that use the UK as a base for exporting to the EU, Nissan relies on rapid, “just in time” importing of millions of components from the EU every day, with no customs delays or tariffs.

A hard Brexit – if the government has not agreed to a customs union or common standards to allow free movement of goods – would result in trading with EU countries on World Trade Organization rules, which apply 4.5% tariffs to car parts and 10% to finished cars.

Colin Lawther, a Nissan executive, told the House of Commons international trade committee in February 2017 that tariffs would add £500m to the plant’s costs, which it might not survive, and that long delays of parts at borders would be a disaster for the operation.

In a statement to the Guardian authorised by the main board in Japan, Nissan said: “Since 1986, the UK has been a production base for Nissan in Europe. Our British-based research and development and design teams support the development of products made in Sunderland, specifically for the European market.

“Frictionless trade has enabled the growth that has seen our Sunderland plant become the biggest factory in the history of the UK car industry, exporting more than half of its production to the EU.

“Today we are among those companies with major investments in the UK who are still waiting for clarity on what the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU will look like. As a sudden change from those rules to the rules of the World Trading Organization will have serious implications for British industry, we urge UK and EU negotiators to work collaboratively towards an orderly balanced Brexit that will continue to encourage mutually beneficial trade.”

As the Guardian says, it is a sign of alarm at senior levels that Nissan has issued a statement, as the company has been restrained in public since the June 2016 referendum. Businesses do not rate a World Trade Organisation solution as workable despite it being embraced by many Tories. And for many, it is looking increasingly likely that this will be our ultimate destination.

If that is the case then it will be disastrous for the UK economy, disastrous for jobs and devastating for our standards of living.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Is the UK Government being held hostage by the militant wing of the Christian right?

So now we know. It isn't just Boris Johnson who is holding Theresa May's feet to the fire over Brexit. The real threat comes from the DUP, otherwise known as the militant wing of the Christian right.

The Independent reports that Theresa May's DUP allies have threatened to torpedo her Brexit plans and vowed to vote with Labour if the proposals breach their red lines. Their Westminster leader Nigel Dodds has said that his party will not tolerate a border of "any kind" down the Irish Sea, effectively ruling out potential regulatory checks at Irish Sea ports as part of a backstop agreement.

He has indicated that his party will walk through the voting lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn, despite their animosity towards the Labour leader over his perceived support for republicanism:

Mr Dodds told a fringe event at Conservative conference: "Let us be clear that for the DUP there will be no border of any kind down the Irish Sea - customs, regulatory, political, constitutional or otherwise because we are part of the UK and we will leave the EU together and as one nation.

"The danger of this Irish backstop is that it has the potential, to not only separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, in any divergence that there may be from it, it also has the potential to shackle the UK for generations to come in its relationship with Europe.

"That is why it is critical that we get it right and the DUP will not be signing up to any backstop unless we are sure that every line of it complies with our requirements that I have set out."

This commitment to a unified nation state is though very much skin deep. A party that could only command 28% of the vote in its home province at the last General Election, is seeking to hold the rest of us to ransom.

And yet when it comes to same-sex marriage and abortion the DUP is content to stand apart from the rest of the UK. This is a party that does not even represent majority opinion in Northern Ireland and yet it feels able to single-handedly wreck a peace process that has prevailed for 20 years.

In any hung Parliament or coalition, the smaller parties will often be the tail wagging the dog. But they are duty-bound in my view to exercise that privilege responsibly  acting in the National interest not those of a narrow dogma. The DUP has failed that test. Theresa May should find alternative arrangements to sustain her minority government.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

New Welsh Tory leader hits resistance in first conference speech

The inward-looking nature of the Cardiff Bay bubble was on full display yesterday when the new Welsh Tory Leader choose a process issue as the highlight of his first public outing on the UK stage.

The airwaves and other media here in Wales were replete with quotes, soundbites and discussion over the call by Paul Davies at the Tory Conference platform for Carwyn Jones' successor to seek a fresh mandate from Welsh voters in the form of a new Welsh Assembly election.

Anything he might have said or wanted to say about health, education, or the economy was drowned out, leaving us with the impression that Mr. Davies cares more about mandates and elections than he does the problems facing people across Wales. But it didn't end there.

The failure of the Tory Conference organisers to include Mr. Davies' speech in the programme left us with the impression that he was a mere afterthought, unlike Ruth Davidson, who can do no wrong.

We were told that this had happened because Paul Davies had not been elected when the programme was drawn up, but there was not even a generic reference to a speech by the Welsh Tory leader in the schedule. Perhaps they needed to vet him first.

And then, just as we thought the process issue had died down, Mr. Davies suffered the humiliation of having his chief debating point rejected by the Prime Minister. As the BBC reports, Theresa May told reporters that the focus should be on Brexit, not on snap elections.

Perhaps she was afraid that Mr. Davies' obsession with mandates might rub off on her own government and lead to further calls for her to stand down in favour of somebody who might actually win an election.

All-in-all it was not a good start for the new Welsh Tory Leader. After all, it is hard enough getting yourself heard from the depths of the Welsh Assembly chamber as it is, without having your own party treat you as some sort of pariah.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Tory London Mayor candidate missteps already

It can only be a matter of days since he was selected but already the Tory candidate for London Mayor is embroiled in controversy.

The Independent reports that Shaun Bailey is at the centre of an Islamophobia row after he shared a tweet that meant thousands of his followers saw a message referring to Labour’s Sadiq Khan as “mad mullah Khan of Londonistan”.

Apparently, Bailey retweeted a post last year which had shared a picture of Mr Khan and a racist caption which also branded Labour as “anti-British”. The Tories are claiming that he is not to blame but it is an all too familiar story: a candidate caught out by their social media history:

The Conservative Party told The Independent there is “no way” Mr Bailey would have seen the offensive caption on the picture before sharing the post, as to do so one must click to open it.

But a London Labour MP branded the picture sent to more than 10,000 of Mr Bailey’s followers as “absolutely disgraceful” and accused the Tory politician of seeking to wage an Islamophobic campaign against Mr Khan.

The Tories have form on this of course. Zac Goldsmith was accused of running an Islamophobic campaign for London Mayor last time. All the indications are that the Conservative Party's problem with Islamophobia is at least as bad as Labour's with anti-Semitism.  Isn't it time they sorted it out?

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