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Thursday, January 31, 2019

How Brexit is hittng capital funding, even before we leave

Whatever you say about the impact of Brexit on the economy is dismissed as Project Fear by arch-leavers, who will not accept the disastrous consequences of their campaign until the UK is on its knees, and even then they will blame somebody else.

It is interesting therefore to see this article in the Independent, which quotes the report by a House of Lords committee, suggesting that the UK lost more than €5bn (£4.5bn) in infrastructure funding in a year as lending from the EU collapsed following the Brexit vote.

They say that peers have warned that major infrastructure projects would be hurt further if the government fails to "plug the funding gap" when Britain loses access to the European Investment Bank (EIB) after Brexit, as ministers have relied on the EIB to fund major projects such as Crossrail and Manchester's tram extension.

The Lords EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee say that Brexit has already had a "material effect" on the UK's relationship with the EIB, which lent €7bn to 54 projects in 2016, compared to €1.8bn to 12 projects in 2017 and €932m to 10 projects last year. In fact, the EIB, has contributed more than €118bn to UK projects in the last 45 years so the vagueness of the UK Government as to the country's future relationship with the body is particularly damaging.

In the last decade alone, the EIB has pumped €50bn into the British economy, and in 2015 accounted for a third of total funding of UK infrastructure projects. That is why it is vital that we have a plan as to how this funding will be replaced after 29th March.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Was Cameron this country's worst Prime Minister?

I haven't had time to catch up with the Inside Europe yet, but those who have seen it tell me, and this review confirms that the programme validates everything we think about David Cameron's tenure as UK Prime Minister:

The full hour paints a vivid portrait of a leader showing no leadership but instead bending to the whims of a fully sociopathic political project. It lays bare Cameron’s only achievement, which was to lay a paper-thin layer of modernisation over his beloved Conservative Party, to make it electable again. Of course, this could not stop him from being burnt to a crisp by the red hot volcano beneath it.

It is also a gentle trot through some extremely poor politics. There is a tendency to imagine that, with hindsight, Cameron faced an impossible job, managing a party several decades into a civil war over Europe. But this documentary reminds us that many of his key decisions were abysmal even at the time.

It shows David Cameron standing up at his own party conference, making menacing promises that he will “sort out” various problems with the EU that, in fact, cannot be sorted out, and so served only to shatter his own fragile position.

He promises an in-out referendum, as well as a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU. When his renegotiation is widely (though unfairly) panned at home, he has suddenly trapped himself in a position whereby he must criticise the EU at the same time as campaigning to remain in it. That, we now know, was a disaster waiting to happen.

The EU Council president Donald Tusk pops up for the hour’s most revealing moment, when he breezily informs viewers that Cameron told him there would never be a referendum, as his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would never allow it. Cameron then confounds his own expectations and wins a majority in 2015. As Tusk says, “The real victim of David Cameron’s success is David Cameron.”

The programme also underlines the role of Theresa May in making life even more difficult in the negotiations with her insistence on limiting immigration. Her intransigence as Home Secretary also made a major contribution to the mess we are in, and which she is demonstrating as Prime Minister, her inability to sort out.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Labour confusion over immigration bill sums up their failure as an opposition

Labour's failure to act as an effective opposition, particularly over Brexit where they have been enablers not scrutineers, was summed up last night as they struggled for a coherent position on the Tory Government's immigration bill.

As the Guardian reports, Theresa May has repeatedly said that her Brexit deal will bring freedom of movement for EU citizens to an end, and that the immigration bill will establish the new, stricter regime.

Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott has fiercely criticised the legislation, calling it “one of the flimsiest pieces of legislation on a major issue that I or many of my colleagues have seen”. “This bill, the immigration white paper and the accompanying media narrative, plays to some of the very worst aspects of the Brexit debate. In the process, it risks doing irreparable damage to business, the economy and society,” she said.

And yet when it came to the crunch, she told the House of Commons that the frontbench would not vote against the post-Brexit legislation. “The Labour party is clear that when Britain leaves the single market, freedom of movement ends, and we set this out in our 2017 manifesto. I am a slavish devotee of that magnificent document: so on that basis, the frontbench of the Labour party will not be opposing this bill this evening,” she said. She added that Labour would abstain at this stage, known as second reading, and seek amendments later:

Abbott then tweeted that the bill put “the cart before the horse” because it seeks to establish a new immigration regime before the UK’s future relationship with the EU has been settled. “Labour wants to amend bill substantially. Today isn’t a final vote!” she added.

But 90 minutes later, amid a growing backlash on social media, Labour shifted its position and announced that it would whip its MPs to vote against the bill – though many had been told by the whips that they did not need to be present in Westminster on Monday.

Despite Labour’s change of heart, the government won the vote by 297 votes to 234, a comfortable majority of 63. With only a one-line whip in force, many of Labour’s 256 MPs had permission to be absent, and just 178 were present for the late-night vote.

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Ed Davey, accused Labour of missing a potential opportunity to defeat the government, pointing out that two Conservative MPs, Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke, had rebelled.

“It is beyond belief that some Tory MPs were more organised on opposing the government’s hostile immigration policies than the Labour shadow cabinet,” he said.

One usually loyal backbench Labour MP described his party leadership’s flip-flop on the bill as a “meltdown”, adding: “Anyone with one foot on the ground could have told you the optics of the abstention, given Brexit sensitivities, was shocking.”

This insidious and damaging bill only passed its second reading because Labour failed to get its act together. Their incompetence as an opposition is growing.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The WTO myth

I blogged nearly four weeks ago on why the World Trade Organisation offers no solutions to our Brexit problem, so it is helpful to see this article in the Guardian, which adds some further thoughts to the theme.

They quote two European Union law specialists as arguing that the UK will be unable to have frictionless, tariff-free trade under World Trade Organization rules for up to seven years in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The lawyers argue that the ensuing chaos could double food prices and plunge Britain into a recession that could last up to 30 years:

There are two apparently insurmountable hurdles to the UK trading on current WTO tariffs in the event of Britain crashing out in March, said Howard.

Firstly, the UK must produce its own schedule covering both services and each of the 5,000-plus product lines covered in the WTO agreement and get it agreed by all the 163 WTO states in the 32 remaining parliamentary sitting days until 29 March 2019. A number of states have already raised objections to the UK’s draft schedule: 20 over goods and three over services.

To make it more complicated, there are no “default terms” Britain can crash out on, Howard said, while at the same time, the UK has been blocked by WTO members from simply relying on the EU’s “schedule” – its existing tariffs and tariff-free trade quotas.

The second hurdle is the sheer volume of domestic legislation that would need to be passed before being able to trade under WTO rules: there are nine statutes and 600 statutory instruments that would need to be adopted.

The government cannot simply cut and paste the 120,000 EU statutes into UK law and then make changes to them gradually, Howard said. “The UK will need to set up new enforcement bodies and transfer new powers to regulators to create our own domestic regimes,” she said.

“Basic maths shows that we will run out of time but any gap in our system will create uncertainty or conflict,” said Howard. “Some of these regimes carry penalties such as fines – even criminal offences in some sectors.”

Unless there is an extension to article 50, both these hurdles will need to be crossed by 29 March. This, said Howard, was an impossible task. “Negotiating and ratifying the international free trade deals with the rest of the world alone could take over seven years,” she said.

“A no-deal Brexit could double prices for some products like meat and dairy. There is also a greater risk of trade disputes and sanctions, resulting in reduced market access for UK businesses.

“It’s not just about money,” she said. “We are dependent on imports for a lot of things that we don’t make any more or don’t make enough of, or simply cannot make as they are patented or subject to rules of origin – like lifesaving drugs, radioactive isotopes for MRI scans, medical equipment, chemicals, electricity, petrol, even milk. Shortages and delays could cause panic buying or even civil unrest.”

Perhaps journalists will confront Brexiteers with this reality the next time they argue that a no deal Brexit is survivable because of the WTO. I am not holding my breath.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Has Brexit become a existential threat to our democracy?

It is all very well Brexiteers arguing that we have to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum because that is 'democracy'. but where are those so-called values when the rift with Europe they crave itself becomes an existential threat to our freedoms?

Of course having a third plebiscite on the subject of Europe is in no way subverting the democratic process. People have a right to pass judgement on the changed circumstances between June 2016 and today, they should be able to decide whether the deal that Theresa May has cobbled together is acceptable to them, and they certainly should decide whether the consequences that have emerged in the last two years of us leaving Europe on any deal (or no deal) are worth it or not.

That is democracy, not the sterilisation of a position taken on a series of vague promises that have proved to be undeliverable, or the ossification of an unformed proposition that has turned out to be unworkable. If there is one thing we have learned in the last two years, Brexit, indeed democracy itself, is a process not an event.

The latest threat to our freedom comes from, plans drawn up by the UK Government to declare a state of emergency and even the introduction of martial law in the event of disorder after a no-deal Brexit. The Sunday Times reports that civil servants are considering how to use the sweeping powers available under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to stop any civil disobedience resulting from the nation leaving the EU on March 29.

Measures being considered include curfews, bans on travel, confiscation of property and, most drastic, the deployment of the armed forces to quell rioting are among the measures available to ministers under the legislation. They can also amend any act of parliament, except the Human Rights Act, for a maximum of 21 days.

This legislation was introduced to deal with national emergencies such as acts of war and terrorism and now the government is considering using it to impose their will on the British people. In addition, the UK armed forces have begun stockpiling food, fuel, spare parts and ammunition at bases in the Falklands, Cyprus and Gibraltar in case of a no-deal Brexit. They are anxious that rations and other supplies are built up to ensure the military does not run short should a chaotic Brexit disrupt imports and exports.

This is not a democratic process, this is a coup d'état by the establishment. We really do have to call a halt to this nonsense as soon as possible.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

14,000 jobs at risk over Brexit and how many more?

Surely, the head of plane giant Airbus spoke for all of us when he branded Theresa May’s handling of Brexit a “disgrace”. However, his threat to close the company's plants if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal has to be taken seriously.

Airbus employs 14,000 people in Britain, including 6,000 jobs at its main wings factory at Broughton, in North Wales, and 3,000 at Filton, near Bristol, where wings are designed and supported. With around 110,000 more jobs in connected supply chains, the aerospace group is among the UK’s key employers – and among the most vulnerable to the loss of ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing across the EU.

It will not be the only company considering its future in the EU if we crash out on 29th March, and that is before we look at the financial sector. Nor is this just confined to a no deal Brexit. As Tom Enders argues in the Independent, business needs certainty if they are to plan for the future, but they also need favourable trading conditions.

Many businesses are based in the UK because of their easy tariff-free access to the European continent. A large number employ EU citizens. The uncertainty is threatening their future and who could blame them if they decide to relocate elsewhere.

For these companies the best deal is the one we have now, in the EU. Why would we put jobs and our future prosperity at risk by leaving that arrangement?

Friday, January 25, 2019

Street homeless in Wales at crisis point

On the day that a Tory Councillor posed in front of tents erected on Cardiff's Queen Street by homeless persons, and demanded that the Council sweep them away, the BBC reports on warnings by charities that street homelessness this side of Offa's Dyke is at 'crisis point'.

Shelter Cymru has told the broadcaster that while the exact number of people sleeping rough is unknown, all the main organisations have reported a rise. The charity said more needed to be done to get people off the streets and into homes of their own. The BBC relate the story of one person:

Chris, from Taffs Well, lived in a people carrier for six and a half years before benefitting from a project called Housing First.

It gives people a home and then supports them with whatever problems they have.

The typical alternative available to people who are street homeless is to "work their way up" support services, through hostels and supported accommodation.

Chris had been a teacher for 25 years, before alcohol dependency led to a downward spiral and eventual imprisonment. After leaving prison he lived in his car, picking up casual work as a roadie.

"Casual work in the gig economy means that you can never depend on having a whole week of work so I never seemed to have enough to be able to support a tenancy."

He became malnourished and his health suffered, but his life changed dramatically when he was given the keys to his own home through a Salvation Army Housing First project.

"Slippers, hot water, a bed - three things you dream of when you're living outdoors... It makes me feel like I'm living in the lap of luxury rather than what most people take for granted."

The Welsh Government has already funded six Housing First projects, but Jennie Bibbings, campaigns manager for Shelter Cymru, said more were needed. She called for a wide variety of houses to be built and more empty houses to be brought into use.

There are a number of solutions proposed by the various organisations quoted in the piece but Housing First looks like the best long-term approach. What is also clear however, is that many of those sleeping rough have ended up there through no fault of their own.

Many are the victims of family break-up, have lost their home due to the downturn and benefit cuts and in many cases have become dependent on drugs and alcohol. A number have mental health problems as well, and have become accustomed to street life. It takes long and patient work to get them settled back into a home, including support and treatment for any issues they may have.

The Minister is right that it is not just a case of providing a home for them, and that Housing First is a way forward, but we also need short term provision to be beefed up as well, including more night shelters, day centres where people can get food, a shower, launder their clothes and get medical help, and outreach work.  The Welsh Government must urgently review all these services and put more in place.

We should not forget either that street homelessness is just the tip of the iceberg. Many homeless persons are sofa surfing, living in inappropriate accommodation or in hostels. It is a much wider problem.

One thing is clear, sweeping homeless people off the street as advocated by this Cardiff Tory Councillor solves nothing other than hiding the problem so as not to inconvenience certain people's sensibilities.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Tory Brexiteer MPs throwing their toys out of the pram over deadlock

You know that you have entered a parallel universe when those advocating we should leave the EU so as to 'take back control of our own country' appeal to a foreign power to overrule the democratic decision of an elected and sovereign Parliament. And yet that is precisely what has happened.

As Indy 100 reports, Daniel Kawczynski, the MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham in Shropshire, has formally asked Poland to veto any extension of Article 50. He revealed this startling news in a tweet:

“Today I have formally asked Polish Government to veto any motions by EU to allow extension of Article 50. “We are leaving 11pm on March 29th as promised.”

‘Strong and historic partnership’ He added in a subsequent message: “Our friends the Poles have taken a lead in the EU to better understand our perspectives and help us break impasse with Ireland and the EU.”

His demand was picked up by the Polish press, which carried his lobbying message: “In the light of our strong and historic partnership, I appeal to Polish representatives to listen and intercede for British arguments on Brexit and support us in the future compromises that we strive for in the talks with the EU, so as to break the stalemate and our exit from the EU took place for the benefit of the entire United Kingdom.” 

Jacob Krupa, a Polish journalist covering the UK, reported that government sources in Warsaw had already shot down Mr Kawczynski’s request. The sources reportedly said a no deal is the “worst possible scenario” and that any request to extend Article 50 would be evaluated as it comes.

As a request for an extension would likely originate from the UK side of negotiations rather than the EU side, this means Mr Kawczynski has potentially lobbied a foreign government to oppose the will of his own.

During the last great rift with Europe, namely Henry VIII's break with Rome and reformation of the Church, such actions would have led to summary execution. Can we expect even a censure from the sitting Prime Minister? It looks unlikely.

But then this is not the only bizarre action by a Brexiteer Tory MP. The Independent reports that Jacob Rees-Mogg has urged Theresa May to suspend parliament if attempts to thwart a no-deal Brexit are successful.

The Somerset MP, whose firm has set up a second investment fund in the Irish Republic to assist clients to avoid the consequences of Brexit, suggested Mrs May could “prorogue” parliament if a backbench bill tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory Nick Boles to block a disorderly Brexit is backed by MPs:

Mr Rees-Mogg told a meeting of the Bruges Group of Tory Eurosceptics that the efforts by backbenchers to drive parliamentary business were a “constitutional outrage”.

He said that no deal could only be taken off the table if the government “connived in doing it”. He added: “If the House of Commons undermines our basic constitutional conventions then the executive is entitled to use other vestigial constitutional means to stop it.

“By which I basically mean prorogation ... And I think that would be the government’s answer, that is the government’s backstop, to use a choice phrase.”

Prorogation is the time between the end of a parliamentary session and the state opening that marks the beginning of the next session. Under these circumstances, any pending legislation would fall, including Ms Cooper’s bill.

It is a strange argument to make that a majority vote in the House of Commons is considered to undermine 'basic constitutional conventions'. It is indicative of the mess we are in that MPs can believe that they will be taken seriously when they argue these things.

What is becoming clearer is that for many of these hardliners, 'taking back control' means getting their own way, and to hell with the interests of the country and the democratic norms by which we have been governed for centuries. Are we on the verge of a coup d'état?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Will the House of Commons finally grasp the nettle on reform?

The decision of Labour’s Tulip Siddiq to delay her caesarean section last week so she could be wheeled into the lobbies to vote has hopefully knocked some common sense into those in the UK Government who were delaying reform on the way the House of Commons operates.

As the Independent reports, Commons leader Andrea Leadsom announced MPs would finally be able to approve a “substantive motion” on proxy voting on Monday, allowing the changes to voting for new parents to be brought forward within days.

Ms. Siddiq, who represents Hampstead and Kilburn said she defied doctors’ advice because she did not trust the government to honour pairing arrangements, after Tory chairman Brandon Lewis broke a pact with new mother Jo Swinson in a knife-edge Brexit vote last year.

The current system for parental leave is informal and organised by the political parties, where whips make pairing arrangements so an MP from a rival party does not vote along with the absent politician.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Ms Swinson, who tabled the urgent question, is absolutely right in welcoming the pilot scheme and in her remarks about the move being long “overdue”.

She said: “I thought things were pretty bad when back in June, in the heatwave, I was 10 days past my due date – but the government’s response to the House’s instruction to introduce proxy voting gives a whole new meaning to the word overdue.

“It’s shameful that last week Tulip Siddiq was put in the invidious position of having to try to make a choice between potential health risks to her baby and whether or not her constituents could have their voice heard on the biggest issue of our time.

“Nobody should be put in that position.”

Anybody in the Government who has been delaying this move up to now should hang their head in shame.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Customs union outside the EU is second best says former WTO boss

The Guardian contains a wake-up call for those MPs who believe that a customs union is a viable alternative to remaining a member of the EU. Pascal Lamy, who is a former head of the World Trade Organisation told the paper he did not see the UK having a decision-making role if it were in a customs union with the EU.

Lamy compared the preference of many MPs, including the leader of the Labour Party to the current arrangements between the EU and Turkey:

While a customs union would help solve the impasse over the Irish border, the EU would still require additional regulatory checks. One EU official said: “If [the British] want a customs union like Turkey, we can negotiate that; the problem is it will not solve friction. That is simply an illusion.”

If the UK were to seek a customs union, EU member states would look to bind the UK to some single market rules to avoid unfair competition.

Lamy described the customs union as a political construct based on compromise. “It is not that France and Germany and Italy always have the same preference for opening or less opening [of their markets], for cheese or cars, it is that they find a compromise between them, but they converge because they are part of a system that is about convergence.”

The EU created a customs union with Turkey in 1995, which Lamy said was a precedent to study, noting that the EU had never allowed Ankara a seat at the table. The customs union with Turkey covers industrial goods but not agriculture, services or public procurement. Turkey follows EU rules on industrial standards and is obliged to apply the EU’s external tariff to imports from non-EU countries.

This leaves Turkey with lopsided trading arrangements with the rest of the world. Countries that have a trade agreement with the EU, such as Canada, have preferential access to the Turkish market if their goods enter the EU, but Turkey does not have reciprocal access.

“There are always problems,” Lamy said. “The Turks are permanently frustrated that whatever trade agreement the European Union negotiates with a third party, they are onboard while they have no say.”

The former trade official described Brexit as “a mess that was to be expected”, and he compared the preference of leading Brexiters for trading on WTO terms to playing football in the fourth division. “It is not that you cannot play soccer in the fourth division, but it is not the way you play in first division.”

Under his football analogy, the EU’s internal market is league number one, customs union counts as the second division, a bilateral trade agreement is the third division, while North Korea plays alone in the fifth division.

The fact is that politically and economically the UK already has the best possible deal. Those thinking that we can thrive on WTO terms are deluding themselves. I suspect that their enthusiasm for that arrangement will last only up to the point when they realise that the WTO is not as accountable as the EU, and they cannot stand for election to change the rules as they can with the EU.

Monday, January 21, 2019

May grasps at straws in attempt to construct fantasy Brexit

I suspect that when the House of Commons voted to insist on the Prime Minister presenting her Brexit Plan B to them today, they were expecting a realistic rethink of her approach based on cross-party working and an alliance of MPs, which by-passed some fairly reluctant and intransigent leaders.

Instead, it appears that Theresa May has given up on bringing other parties on board, cannot see past her own red lines and has decided that she is capable of defying political gravity, with a proposal that would be more at home down Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole than in the real world.

As the Independent reports, May believes that the best way of securing a majority in the House of Commons is to win over her own hardliners and the DUP by finessing the Good Friday Agreement and effectively abandoning the backstop, which guarantees an open border between Northern Ireland and Eire.

The paper says that May plans to bypass the European Union and secure a bilateral Brexit treaty with Ireland. This would involve the UK trying to convince Ireland to agree a plan for keeping the Northern Ireland border open after Britain leaves the EU:

Under the new proposal being discussed by No 10, the Sunday Times reports, the UK would try to convince the Irish government to negotiate a treaty that would remove the need for the backstop, which Brussels insisted on as an insurance policy to ensure an open border is maintained even if the EU and UK cannot agree a trade deal.

The arrangement would see the UK enter into a temporary customs union with the EU, and Northern Ireland agree to abide by European rules on goods until a subsequent deal was reached.

A Downing Street source said talk of a bilateral agreement with Ireland was "not something we recognise".

Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, appeared to confirm the plan, however, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We have to compromise on the backstop. If we’re to get the agreement through, we absolutely have to do that. The question is how we find a way to do that.”

Asked what such a compromise might involve, he said: “It’s getting an agreement with Ireland on an alternative mechanism to ensure that we don’t get friction across the Norther Ireland-Ireland border.”

What is most interesting about this is that some Ministers actually entertain the delusion that Ireland can be separated off from the EU, when it is that country's government which is driving the EU's insistence on a backstop.

The paper quotes Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, on Twitter: “As Brexit dominates news coverage, no surprise that some analysis today gets it wrong. I can reassure you the Irish government’s commitment to the entire [withdrawal agreement] is absolute – including the backstop to ensure, no matter what, an open border between Ireland + NI and the [Good Friday Agreement] are protected.”

Whilst an Irish government source told the Sunday Times that a bilateral treaty “doesn’t sound like something we would entertain”.

If this is the best that the UK Government can come up with then it is little wonder that we are in such a mess.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Labour lose over 150,000 members over Brexit

The Sunday Times reports on the view of party insiders, that the Labour Party is haemorrhaging members amid a growing backlash over Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit.

They say that at the height of Corbyn’s popularity following the general election in 2017, Labour was considered the “largest party in western Europe” with more than 500,000 members. However, in recent months, sources have told the paper that Labour has lost up to 150,000 members. It is estimated that up to 100,000 are not up to date with their subs and enrolment has slumped to around 385,000.

One former Labour Welsh Assembly Member believes that the figure of lost members may well be as high as 180,000:

A Labour insider said the downswing had already cost around £6m. “The party is skint,” the source said. “There have already been some recriminations about the amount spent on last summer’s botched music festival Labour Live.

“Although there is always some drop-off in membership after big events like general elections, or a leadership contest, this is more than you would ordinarily expect and has led many of us to think it’s linked to Jeremy’s unpopular stance on Brexit.”

In a tweet last week, Labour MP Neil Coyle said Labour had lost 60,000 members in the past year, fuelling claims the party is alienating its support base. In response to an insulting tweet from a self-proclaimed Corbynista, he wrote: “Another brainiac who hasn’t worked out yet why 60,000 people left the Labour Party last year . . .”

Polls show that Labour members are significantly more opposed to Brexit than Corbyn, with 72% thinking their leader should support a second vote.

Corbyn's pro-Brexit stance, his refusal to consider supporting a people's vote, and his failure to effectively oppose the government on this issue, is costing the Labour Party dearly.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Theresa May to take away our human rights after Brexit

The Independent reports that Theresa May will consider axing the Human Rights Act after Brexit, despite promising she is “committed” to its protections. They say that the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee wrote to the Ministry of Justice after the alarm was raised by the wording of the political declaration, which was agreed with the EU in December alongside the legally binding divorce deal:

The declaration said the UK would merely agree “to respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights” – dropping the previous pledge of being “committed” to it.

In response, Edward Argar, a junior justice minister, wrote: “The difference in wording does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the ECHR.

“A central tenet of our future relationship with the EU is our mutual belief in the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

But he then suggested that the Human Rights Act could be scrapped when Brexit is concluded. “Our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of EU exit is underway,” he wrote.

“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.

As the Independent says, before the act was passed in 1998, anyone who believed their human rights had been breached could not pursue a ruling in a domestic court – and had to go to Strasbourg:

Pushed through by Tony Blair’s government, it is hailed by many as among his finest achievements, but is a bête noire for many Conservatives for giving too many rights to criminals and even for undermining personal responsibility.

The threat to undo it comes despite the Brexit white paper insisting, last summer, that the UK would remain in the ECHR, after the EU warned that pulling out would jeopardise a future security deal.

The peers said it would imperil human rights if the government “intend to break the formal link” between the UK courts and the EHCR.

At least with the Human Rights Act these matters are decided in UK courts. What part of further empowering the ECHR is 'taking back control'?

Friday, January 18, 2019

Government energy policy comes apart at the seams

The delay in building the £13bn Wylfa Newydd nuclear power plant, which was announced yesterday raises a number of questions about UK energy policy and in particular whether Government needs to become more proactive to achieve their goals.

According to the BBC the Welsh secretary, Alun Cairns said he was "confident" the plant would still be built on the Anglesey site and that it will be delayed by "potentially a small number of years". In my view that can only be the case if the UK Government is prepared to take on a substantial portion of the construction cost and, presumably, guarantee the decommissioning costs that nowadays have to be written into these projects.

The economic climate is such that companies like Hitachi are questioning whether they can afford to bear the upfront costs of a long construction period before they start to get any economic return on their investment. Building a nuclear power plant is complex and expensive, the environmental considerations attached to any construction just add to that cost.

Is this the sort of project any private sector company can take on anymore, without significant state support? As my former Welsh Assembly colleague, Eluned Parrott tweeted yesterday:

'The UK Govt turned it’s back on the Swansea Tidal Lagoon because it relied on this.

Who will invest in a country that’s an international laughing stock, openly discussing defaulting on its legal obligations & insulting its current partners?'

Of course once we go down that route, the questions then start to be asked, why Wylfa and not the Swansea Bay lagoon? Why not a barrage across the Severn? What in fact are the policy objectives of UK energy policy?

These are legitimate questions. As far as I am aware the two main policy objectives of UK energy policy are to get energy security and to tackle climate change. Yesterday's announcement was a  wake-up call to ministers, they cannot rely on the private sector to do this for them. They need to put their money where their policy is.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Somebody should tell them, the answer is 42

A bit of light relief this morning with the very serious story in The Times that scientists want to spend £21 billion on building a 100km-long circular tunnel, a successor to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) under the Swiss-French border to smash sub-atomic particles together.

The intention is that the Future Circular Collider would be nearly four times larger than the Large Hadron Collider and aim to fill gaps in our knowledge of the universe:

“You can think of a collider as a microscope,” Jonathan Butterworth, of University College London, who has contributed to the plans, said. “The point of going to higher energy is that we get higher resolution. We can study the fundamental constituents of the universe and the forces that make them work together more accurately.”

The paper says that backers of the project, overseen by Cern, the particle physics research centre based in Geneva, argue that it offers a chance to augment our understanding of gravity or to explain why the universe is made of matter rather than anti-matter.

They add that, for example, the standard model of particle physics fails to explain dark matter, which makes up most of the mass of the universe. “It predicted the Higgs, but it’s definitely not a theory of everything,” Professor Butterworth said.

If Douglas Adams were still alive he might feel obliged to point out that the answer is actually 42. Still at just 54% of the cost of Brexit, this seems like good value for money, apart from all the other things we could spend £21 billion (or £39 billion for that matter) on.

Perhaps if the scientists proposing this project could demonstrate how the new collider might avert global warming, and the potential poverty and food shortages that it could cause, we could be onto a winner.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A failure of opposition

It may seem strange to argue that the Tory Government's 220 vote defeat on a major plank of policy is not just a failure of Government, but of the opposition as well, but bear with me.

There is no doubt in my view that Theresa May is the architect of her own misfortune. She squandered a Tory majority in 2017 with a snap General Election, which she effectively lost. Despite that she hitched her fortunes to the DUP, making any settlement with the EU impossible, just because of the Irish border issues. She is a fighter, but she is flailing around in the ring on her own, boxing shadows.

In these circumstances, it was the duty of the opposition, in the national interest, to take a clear and constructive position. The Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru (but see the comments to this post) and the SNP did that. The official opposition under Jeremy Corbyn however, sat on the fence and played it for party advantage. For that alone, in my view, he has disqualified himself as a potential Prime Minister. You cannot play games with the country's future in this way.

Corbyn argues that this can only be resolved by a General Election, and yet he has no alternative position on Brexit to put before electors. He has now tabled a motion of no confidence, but in doing so has chosen a moment when he cannot win. If he had been serious about toppling this Tory Government then, as I argued here, he would have tabled that motion when Theresa May withdrew the first 'meaningful vote' in early December, and before Tory MPs attempted their own coup d'grace.

But what of the way forward? Is a third referendum, a people's vote now a possibility? One Labour MP argued on Twitter this morning that yesterday's vote leaves us with no question to pose in a further plebiscite. I disagree. A modified deal, could still feature on a ballot paper, on the grounds that MPs cannot be trusted to determine the future of the country and, as this is the only deal available, the people should be asked to give direction to Parliament.

The problem is that I don't believe that a referendum, asking people to choose between  the deal or staying in the EU, would get through the House of Commons. I believe that MPs would insist on adding a third options of 'no deal' to the ballot paper, and that would make a plebiscite unworkable.

It is not that I don't believe people could make an informed choice on three very clear but complex options, though the campaigns would be very difficult, and we would risk a low turnout, it is that a three choice referendum is likely to leave us in limbo, without a clear majority for any option. Even if we had multi-choice voting the outcome would be disputed, with all sides crying foul. It has got to the stage, in my view, whereby a people's vote is no longer a viable way out of this mess.

That leaves us with the House of Commons as the final arbiters of the Brexit dilemma. God help us. It would mean Labour having to let their MPs vote with their conscience, for Corbyn to stop playing politics with the country's future and for the Prime Minister to start acting in a non-partisan, cross-party way. But, if all of those things happened, and it is unlikely, what would be the compromise?

The Norway-plus option is one possible solution, but as I pointed out here, it is far from perfect. It would cost us more, we would have no say on the rules and regulations we would be subject to, it imposes tariffs on the export of fish and agricultural products, and we would continue to be part of an agreement that allows free movement of people, no bad thing but nevertheless one of the Brexiteers' red lines.

There is of course a no-deal exit, with all the chilling consequences for our economy that involves. I doubt if many MPs want that. but we could slip into it by default, and of course MPs could vote to stay in the EU altogether.

What happens now depends on the Government's poker face. My bet is that May will go back to the EU, get some minor changes to the non-binding political agreement, and then sit it out until MPs, faced with exiting without a deal, decide that it is better than nothing.

Whether MPs would allow her to get away with that is also unlikely. They may well decide to take charge of the process themselves, but can they get a majority for any alternative.? The country really is going to hell in a handcart.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Tory hypocrisy on People's vote exposed

Every time I watch Question Time I want to throw something at the television screen. Yesterday, it was possible to see similar levels of frustration from the Welsh commentariat, as they reacted to claims by Theresa May in a draft speech, that both sides had accepted the result of the Welsh assembly referendum in 1997, and by implication should also accept the result of the Brexit referendum.

The Guardian tells us that in the original version of the speech, given yesterday at a factory in Stoke-on-Trent, the prime minister was due to say the result of the narrowly-won 1997 referendum to create a Welsh assembly was “accepted by both sides”, and the legitimacy of the vote was never questioned.

But when the relevant bill was put to the Commons after the Welsh referendum, many Tory MPs, including the then newly elected May, voted against it. In addition, the Conservative manifesto of 2005 also called for a further referendum on the assembly on expanding its powers, keeping it as it was or abolishing it.

May and many other Conservatives also voted against the creation of a Scottish devolved assembly in 1997, despite the referendum on this being won by 74% to 26%.

As if to make matters worse for the Prime Minister, she was due to claim that the majority in the 1997 referendum was just 0.3% when it was 0.6%. That is particularly significant because of the contribution of one Tory to the debate on the Government of Wales Bill in 1997.

Swansea-born Tory MP, Nigel Evans told the Commons that it would have been better if the percentage majority in favour "had been in double figures": "That would have settled the issue once and for all, but it did not and it remains unsettled," he said.

Mr. Evans is one of those arguing against seeking a further referendum on Theresa May's deal, despite the fact that the majority in 2016 was only in single figures.

Unsurprisingly, the passage was dropped from the speech that Theresa May actually delivered yesterday. But why the opposition to a people's vote when such a course is entirely consistent with her views on other plebiscites?

Monday, January 14, 2019

Government uses English school data to enforce immigration rules

The Guardian reports that the UK government has revoked parents’ right to retract information on their children’s nationality and country of birth submitted to the English schools census, months before Brexit throws the immigration status of 3 million European residents into doubt.

They say that officials from the Department for Education (DfE) collected the data on 6 million English schoolchildren, before it was halted last June in the face of opposition from critics who said it was an attempt to turn schools into internal border checkpoints:

They add that confusion over the policy had already led some schools to instruct only pupils who were not “white British” to bring in identity documents, spreading alarm that it was encouraging racism and a culture of institutional hostility to migrants.

Now ministers have confirmed that not only will they continue to store the data already collected, but also that parents can no longer ask schools to enter “refused”, which instructs the DfE to delete their children’s data.

The significance of this is in what the data is being used for, apparently in defiance of data protection laws:

The schools census is a termly collection of details of pupils in every state school by the DfE. It includes details such as age, address and academic attainment, which are recorded in the national pupil database. Figures released in December showed that in the year to September 2018 the Home Office requested data on 835 children from the DfE, which provided it in 247 cases.

When concerns were first raised about collection of children’s nationality and country of birth, the DfE had insisted that the new data would not be shared with immigration enforcement authorities, that it was only being collected for “analytical, statistical and research purposes”, and that parents could opt out whenever they wanted.

But when it emerged that names and addresses of children collected through the census had since 2015 been secretly shared every month with immigration enforcement, thousands of parents in 2016 heeded calls by human rights groups and teachers’ unions to boycott the questions.

After a freedom of information battle, campaigners subsequently exposed a memorandum of understanding between the DfE and the Home Office that showed that officials had originally intended for nationality and birth country data to be used for immigration enforcement.

In a move that suggests ministers had misled public over their plans, the memorandum had been quietly amended some months after public opposition emerged – and after assurances had already been given – to remove references to nationality and country of birth.

This sharing of data, for purposes it was not originally collected for, must be contrary to the new (and even previous) data protection regulations. Let's hope that the Welsh and Scottish Governments are not party to it.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

A very British Coup?

The Sunday Times characterises an attempt by senior MPs to seize control of Brexit negotiations and side line the prime minister by rewriting the standing orders of the House of Commons as a “very British coup”, but the real surprise is that it has taken so long to get to this point.

The paper says that at least two groups of rebel MPs are plotting to change Commons rules so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government business, upending the centuries-old relationship between executive and legislature.

They say that Downing Street believes that would enable MPs to suspend article 50, putting Brexit on hold, and could even lead to the referendum result being overturned — a move that would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

Government Chief Whip, Julian Smith is quoted as saying, “Such an attempt represents a clear and present danger to all government business. Without control of the order paper, the government has no control over the House of Commons and the parliamentary business and legislation necessary to progress government policies. The government would lose its ability to govern.”

In normal circumstances one might have sympathy for this position, but the one thing that has become very clear since the 2017 General Election is that the government lost control over the House of Commons, parliamentary business and legislation some time ago, has been in capable of governing since May produced her Brexit deal, and has not got a clue how to resolve the Brexit mess they got us into.

Any Prime Minister capable of governing would be able to block these changes to standing orders and carry on as normal. The fact that they believe they will lose this vote, just reinforces its necessity. If Ministers cannot command the confidence of the House of Commons on one of the most fundamental and far-reaching issues of the day, then MPs must take the initiative and do it for them. That is what we elected them for.

Isn't that what 'taking back control' meant? Or was that another one of those ambiguous phrases designed to win support whilst propping up the establishment? For once the Brexiteers are reaping what they sowed.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

UK Government challenged in court on ID voting trial

I reported last year how the introduction of ID checks for all voters in pilot areas, had led to an estimated one in five polling stations turning away voters for not having ID. This just reinforced the perception that the motive behind this idea was voter suppression, and had nothing to do with tackling voter fraud, which is at fairly miniscule levels.

The Electoral Commission says there were only 21 cases of alleged in-person voter fraud in 2014, 44 in 2016, and 28 in 2017 - just 0.000063% per vote cast.

Five areas, Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking, piloted the anti-fraud scheme in last May's local elections. Voters were told to show their polling card or full photo ID, depending on which area they lived in. But reports swiftly emerged of people being turned away. That was also evident on social media as people tweeted their experiences or the experiences of others that they had observed.

The Democracy Volunteers group published a shocking snap report that claimed voters were refused a ballot paper because they did not have the correct ID in 21% of polling stations. This was equal to about 1.7% of all voters across the five pilot areas being turned away, the group. The study did not count whether any or all of those voters came back with the correct ID, but that is unlikely in the majority of cases.

As I suggested in December 2016, measures used in some Republican controlled US states such as Florida, of introducing barriers to voting for ethnic minorities and poorer communities have been in place for some considerable time, with decisive effects in close elections.

Given that the Electoral Commission say that 3.5 million electors or 7.5% of the electorate, would have no acceptable piece of photo ID, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the Tories are attempting to replicate this outcome.

But now a pensioner has issued a legal challenge to the government’s voter ID pilots. As the Mirror reports, Neil Coughlan, 64, says he doesn't have photo ID and believes many of his neighbours don't have the documents to allow them to vote either.

He believes that Voter ID will unfairly discriminate against himself and others across the country and is seeking permission from the courts to apply for a Judicial Review.

The problem for opposition MPs, is that the Government is forcing these pilots through parliament using secondary legislation, meaning they will not have the opportunity to scrutinise the plans. According to Neil’s legal team, the Government through the Minister of the Cabinet Office is acting unlawfully in doing so, as it does not have the power under the Representation of the People Act 2000 to introduce pilots like these which restrict voting rights.

To cover his legal fees, Mr Coughlan, has set up a crowdfunding page and already raised over £20,000. Good luck to him I say.

Friday, January 11, 2019

On low carb diets and other fads

One of my favourite Woody Allen lines is in the film Sleeper, when the main character wakes up 200 years in the future to be told that all of today's health food fads have been proved to be wrong. It is more a commentary on societal trends than science, but funny nevertheless.

I was reminded of this line again, when I saw this article in yesterday's Guardian. They report that a review by the World Health Organisation has concluded that eating more fibre, found in wholegrain cereals, pasta and bread as well as nuts and pulses, will cut people’s chances of heart disease and early death. They add that this is incompatible with fashionable low carb diets:

The research is led by Prof Jim Mann’s team at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who also carried out the major review that informed WHO guidance on curbing sugar in the diet, leading to sugar taxes around the world.

Sugar is a “bad” carbohydrate, but fibre is found in “good” carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread and oat-based muesli. However, the overwhelming backlash against sugar has led to popular diets that reject carbohydrates, including the fibrous sort that can, say the scientists, save lives.

Mann told the Guardian that the research “does contribute to the debate considerably. Here we have got very strong evidence that a high-fibre diet, which for the majority of people is at least high-ish in carbohydrates, has an enormous protective effect – a wide range of diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer benefit from a high-carbohydrate diet.”

But he said it would not end the “diet wars”, because there were so many vested interests involved. “It’s twofold. There is the commercial vested interest, which there is an enormous amount of from chefs and celebrity chefs and so on. And there is also the professional vested interest.” This included some doctors and scientists, he said.

The review found that we should be eating at least 25g to 29g of fibre a day, with indications that over 30g is even better. Most people in the world manage less than 20g.

Among those who ate the most fibre, the analysis found a 15-30% reduction in deaths from all causes, as well as those related to the heart, compared with those eating the least fibre.

Coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer were reduced by 16-24%. The results mean 13 fewer deaths and six fewer cases of coronary heart disease for every 1,000 people who eat high-fibre foods compared with those who do not.

To be fair, I think these findings are in line with the expert advice we have been receiving for some time. Time to give away those left-over Christmas chocolates I think.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Parliament can take control when it wants to, but it remains an old boys club

Apologies for the length of the headline, but I thought it was important to encapsulate the frustration felt by many at the way that the Speaker and his allies seem prepared to quite rightly stand up for MPs against the Government, but still ignores proposed reforms that would make the Commons a more women-friendly place.

In the Guardian, Jessica Elgot describes how Speaker Bercow provoked fury from ministers and Brexit supporters on Wednesday, by accepting an amendment which radically curtails the timetable for Theresa May to prepare a “plan B” to present to parliament should she lose the vote next week on her Brexit deal.

She says that Tory backbenchers were visibly enraged during the points of order after Bercow permitted the controversial amendment:

Crispin Blunt, a Brexiter, told Bercow: “Many of us will now have an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs, not least because you made public your opinion and your vote on the issue of Brexit, is no longer neutral.”

Despite the visceral dislike from many in the Conservative party, Bercow has the firm support of many Labour MPs, precisely because of his willingness to hold the government’s feet to the fire over significant Brexit legislation.

He has dramatically increased the number of urgent questions which he grants to allow backbenchers to call cabinet ministers to the Commons.

May has regularly been kept on her feet for up to three hours during statements until the Speaker has been certain that every backbencher wanting to speak has had the opportunity.

As others have written, Bercow has strengthened the power of MPs in holding the government to account, and has reasserted the authority of Parliament in scrutinising and frustrating an over-mighty executive.

He has been helped of course by the fact that he oversees a hung Parliament, and by the divisions amongst MPs within their own parties, but whatever the reason, his interventions could prove to be crucial in helping to rebalance our main democratic institution.

The question has to be asked though, if Bercow is able to exercise such influence, why is it that other important reforms to the working practices of the House of Commons remain unactioned?

As I wrote a few days ago, despite cross-party and government support for change, new parents and pregnant MPs continue to find the system stacked against them. Their condition is treated as a disability in terms of doing their job, whereas in other work places, their needs would be accommodated and they would be able to work normally throughout their 'confinement' and as a new parent.

It is possible of course that in frustrating the government, Bercow is motivated by a personal dislike of certain Ministers, the government and its policies. That is certainly the view of many Tory MPs.

But if he wants to be a truly reforming Speaker, it is not enough just to give MPs the upper hand over the executive. He needs to also drag the Commons into the twenty-first century in the way it operates.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Pandering to the thugs

The uproar regarding Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay's* suggestion that intimidating protests outside parliament should rule out a fresh referendum was both predictable and justified. This is appeasement, worse it actually encourages the thugs that their intimidation is getting results. No wonder his fellow MPs are not amused.

As the Independent reports, Labour MPs Chuka Umunna and Ben Bradshaw have branded the comment “disgraceful” and a willingness to “give in to fascist thugs” respectively. And senior Tories Justine Greening and Sarah Wollaston have accused Mr Barclay of being ready to bow down to “mob rule” and to “appease right-wing thuggery”. All of which appears to be perfectly reasonable points of view:

Ms Greening told the PoliticsHome website: “What fuels the thugs who abused Anna Soubry is when ministers won’t outright condemn these thugs and their intimidation.

“That sends a dangerous message that ministers will take it into account in decisions. That’s called mob rule.”

Dr Wollaston said: “This is orchestrated intimidation against MPs, journalists and members of the public that should not be tolerated.

“No one should suggest that we should alter our democratic process simply to appease right-wing thuggery.” Mr Umunna tweeted: “Disgraceful for the Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay on @BBCr4today to suggest the abuse and intimidation @Anna_Soubry was subject to yesterday is a reason not to hold a democratic #PeopleVote.”

And Mr Bradshaw added: “Disgraceful comments from rookie #brexit secretary Stephen Barclay claiming the attacks on @Anna_Soubry are reason not to have a #peoplesvote on May’s botched deal. Since when has Britain give in to fascist thugs?”

The good news is that the police appear to have woken up following the intervention of over 50 MPs and the Speaker. Some clearer guidelines for officers patrolling in the vicinity of Parliament would not go amiss.

*Yes, I had to check to get his name right as well.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

When protest spills over into intimidation

I am one of the first to stand up and defend people's right to protest, to offend others and even to be offensive, if it is justified. But there is a line to be drawn between legitimate protest and intimidation, and yesterday's confrontation with Anna Soubry MP crossed that line.

As the Guardian reports, dozens of MPs have written to the UK’s most senior police officer to raise concerns about safety outside parliament after the Conservative MP faced chants from protesters on Monday calling her a “Nazi”. Ironically, the tactics adopted by these protestors have far more in common with those of Hitler's thugs, than anything they may be accusing Ms. Soubry of:

At least 55 parliamentarians signed the letter to the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, after the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, urged officers to do more to protect MPs and Soubry criticised the lack of police response to the abuse.

Scotland Yard later confirmed it had opened an investigation into whether any offences had been committed when chants of “Soubry is a Nazi” could clearly be heard while the pro-remain MP was being interviewed by BBC News on Abingdon Green, a grassed area outside parliament used by broadcasters.

It is the second time in recent weeks that Soubry has been targeted by a small group of pro-Brexit protesters wearing yellow vests, some of whom have links to the far right. On the earlier occasion, she was surrounded by shouting men calling her a traitor.

The MPs’ letter to Dick reads: “After months of peaceful and calm protests by groups representing a range of political views on Brexit, an ugly element of individuals with strong far-right and extreme-right connections, which your officers are well aware of, have increasingly engaged in intimidatory and potentially criminal acts targeting members of parliament, journalists, activists and members of the public.

“We understand there are ongoing investigations but there appears to be an ongoing lack of coordination in the response from the police and appropriate authorities including with Westminster borough policing, and despite clear assurances this would be dealt with following incidents before Christmas, there have been a number of further serious and well publicised incidents today.”

In the letter, the MPs said they wanted to ensure that people retained the right to protest peacefully outside parliament. “It is, however, utterly unacceptable for members of parliament, journalists, activists and members of the public to be subject to abuse, intimidation and threatening behaviour and indeed potentially serious offences while they go about their work.”

Gina Miller makes the point on Radio Wales this morning that it is women in particular who are being targeted by these people, and that despite that, police are there in insufficient numbers and are failing to intervene.

And it is not just MPs who are facing this intimidation. Protestors are targeting journalists and other interviewees, echoes of Trump's verbal assaults on the media, attacking the messenger not the message. The concern of course is that this intimidation will spill over into violence, and that we will have another tragedy such as that with Jo Cox.

If the media are to continue working from College Green, and if we are to continue to respect the democratic right to protest, then the police need to offer greater protection to those being targeted so that both sides can go about their business without fear.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Will Corbyn listen to his members on Brexit?

There was a damning piece by Andrew Rawnsley in yesterday's Observer in which he argued that if we are to stop Brexit, then Jeremy Corbyn will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to support a referendum on the final deal.

It is not a new sentiment. It has been clear for some time that Corbyn is actually in favour of us leaving the EU. As Rawnsley says, the clearest thing the Labour leader said in a recent interview was when he attacked the EU’s rules on competition and subsidies: “I don’t want to be told by somebody else that we can’t use state aid in order to be able to develop industry in this country.”

As the columnist says, this is a variation on one of the ancient arguments from the 1970s against Europe:

It was often heard from Mr Corbyn’s antecedents on the left who opposed what was then the EEC because they saw it as nothing better than a capitalist club constructed to do down the workers and thwart socialism. It is highly disputable whether EU membership would prevent a Corbyn government from pursuing a state-directed industrial strategy. What matters in understanding him and his motivation is that he clearly believes this to be true. It is an argument he often returns to whenever asked about Brexit.

In this Corbyn is out-of-step with his own party and with Labour voters. Some 73% of people currently identifying as Labour supporters think that the UK was wrong to vote to leave the EU. That rises to a massive 89% among Labour members. The ESRC-funded Party Members Project led by Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London found that in another referendum, 88% of Labour members and 71% of Labour voters would cast a ballot to remain within the EU.

And yet, despite being elected on a platform of listening to Labour Party members, Corbyn continues to dig his heels in, and in doing so offer sustenance to the Tory-led Government.

Rawnsley's conclusion is clear: Sometimes, the simplest explanations for human behaviour are the best ones. The Labour leader is not making any effort to prevent Brexit because he doesn’t want to prevent Brexit. 

No wonder so many Labour members are leaving the party to join the only UK-wide party opposing Brexit, the Liberal Democrats.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Why is the House of Commons operating in a time warp?

MPs like Jacob Rees Mogg may well convey the impression of living in a bygone age, indeed one feels that he and some of his fellow Brexiteers would be far more comfortable in the age of Palmerston, Earl Grey and Wellington, but that cannot be the standard by which a twenty-first century democracy measures itself.

It is not just the House of Lords which needs reforming. Some of the archaic practises of the House of Commons also need to be changed. We should no longer be catering for part-time MPs, who care for their non-political business interests in the morning, and have a long lunch at their club, before appearing in the House late afternoon/early evening to vote.

The vast majority of MPs do not behave like this. They are at their desk early in the morning and work through the day and into the evening hours. When they are not in Westminster, they are in their constituency. It is not a standard nine-to-five job by any stretch of the imagination, but that does not mean that MPs should suffer inferior working conditions to others.

Of course the biggest change since the days of Palmerston is the number of women in the House of Commons. There are some backwoodsmen who might still argue that a pregnant MP or a new mother has no business being in work. However, this is the twenty-first century and 99.99% of us are more enlightened than that. So, why is it taking so long for the Commons to reform its practises to allow new parents to do their job, in the same way as they would in any other place of work?

This is a question being posed by a number of MPs, frustrated at the glacial pace of change in the House of Commons. As the Independent reports, pregnant MPs are planning to challenge John Bercow to bring in changes to archaic parliamentary rules that force expectant mothers to vote right up to their due date.

They say that a cross-party delegation of MPs will meet the speaker this month to implore him to introduce a new baby leave system, which would allow proxy voting for new mothers and fathers:

Plans for a proxy voting system – where MPs can nominate colleagues to vote on their behalf – were unanimously approved in February 2018 but progress to introduce the measure has stalled, despite support from Commons leader Andrea Leadsom.

A newly formed women’s caucus in the Commons will now demand the system is brought in for a trial by 1 February, with three Labour MPs and one Tory expecting babies.

Maria Miller, the Conservative chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, told The Independent: “It has been kicked into the long grass and I think that is shameful.

“Any reform at all. The baby leave, how many debates have we had on that? We’ve had two debates on that and it still hasn’t gone through.

“We’ve got a delegation of pregnant women going to see him [the speaker].”

She added: “Whilst you have a push for more women to come into parliament, we have got to make it a place that’s attractive to a wider cross-section of women and most women would find it quite difficult to come to somewhere that is run the way this place is run, which is more like an 18th century gentleman’s club than it is a legislative body for the country.”

The current system for parental leave is informal and organised by the political parties, where whips make so-called pairing arrangements so an MP from a rival party does not vote as well as the absent politician.

When new mothers have to rely on an antiquated pairing system to do their job, and when MPs like Tory Chairman, Brandon Lewis can break those arrangements at politically convenient times, as he did with Jo Swinson, then it is clear that change is needed.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Yet another reason to reform the House of Lords

I put this article to one side earlier in the week, but the Independent's piece reporting the views of the House of Lords Speaker that the number of peers should be reduced to remove "passengers" who do not contribute to debates has been nagging away at me.

Norman Fowler says there are some members of the Lords who were given life peerages without understanding the requirements of the job. He wants to educe the size of the Lords from around 800 to a maximum of 600. That would involve encouraging some peers to retire and restricting the number of people being granted peerages:

Mr Blair appointed 374 people to the upper House, while Mr Cameron ennobled 260.

Lord Fowler, a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, said a small minority of peers had accepted their appointment without understanding the responsibilities of the role.

He said: “You do have extraordinary cases where people have come in and after a few days they’ve come to the conclusion that, actually they’re in the wrong place doing the wrong thing – or rather not doing the wrong thing - and the last thing we want in the House of Lords is passengers.”

“It’s partly unfair, because there were some good people who came in. What I think is fair to say is that on that, as with other appointments, there was no process in which they came before a commission and it was explained to a prospective new peer what was involved in the job.”

Even in the days of hereditary peerages, the House of Lords was filled with people or relatives of people, who had got there through patronage. That is doubly so today. What a way to run a country.

There is no doubt that the Lords do a good job in scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account, something that rarely happens in the Commons nowadays. But the system is flawed and it is not just the numbers of peers that are the problem. There is no accountability.

If we really want to sort this mess out then tinkering won't do it. There needs to be a fully elected second chamber, albeit with guarantees of regional and national balance, a proportional system of election and for long but limited terms. I would also favour election by thirds so as to maintain some semblance of continuity.

It is not a big ask. Other countries do it very successfully. Why can't the UK?

Friday, January 04, 2019

Why the no-deal scenario suits Theresa May

Quietly, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal has crept up on us as a real possibility. It is a perception encouraged by the Government's own publicity, as it releases detail after detail of their contingency measures, including pledging £13 million to a Ferry company that has no ferries and whose terms and conditions have allegedly been borrowed from a fast food chain.

The idea that this disastrous outcome may actually happen is further encouraged as institutions react to the narrative with their own scare stories. Today, we have higher education leaders writing to MPs to say it is "no exaggeration" to warn that a 'no-deal' exit is "one of the biggest threats" the institutions have ever faced and that it would take universities "decades to recover". They say it would undermine scientific research and threaten universities' £21bn contribution to the UK economy.

Then there is the story in today's Guardian that 1,000 police officers from England and Scotland are to begin training for deployment in Northern Ireland in case of disorder from a no-deal Brexit. As if we have any police officers to spare.

And rather than trying to calm everybody down, Government Ministers continue to stoke the fear, because they know that escalating panic is the best way to get their defective exit package through Parliament. They are hoping to scare MPs into voting for it, whilst at the same time influencing public opinion into thinking that they have dodged a bullet, when in fact leaving, even on Theresa May's terms, would also be disastrous for the UK economy. It just wouldn't be as bad as a no deal.

But voting down May's deal does not make crashing out of the EU inevitable. The Government have options, one of which is to extend the period we have to sort things out before we leave. They could then try to renegotiate (unlikely), reconsider Brexit altogether, or go to the country in a referendum and ask us to decide between their deal and staying in the EU.

If Theresa May does nothing after Parliament votes down her deal, then yes we will crash out of the EU and all the bad stuff will happen. But this scaremongering is starting to look like a ploy so that Ministers can get their own way. Don't we deserve better? How about trusting the people for once, and letting us decide?

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Government minister in denial on Brexit

On the plus side, Jeremy Hunt's tenure as Foreign Secretary is a breath of fresh air compared to the record of his predecessor, Boris Johnson. He appears to read and understand his briefs and actually engages with crisis situations when his fellow citizens are in trouble abroad. On the negative side however, he appears to be in denial on what his support for a no-deal Brexit will actually mean.

As the Independent reports, Hunt is under fire for claiming Britain’s close “connections” with other EU countries will be crucial to the UK’s future success, despite his strong support for Brexit. The paper says that on a visit to Singapore on Wednesday, the foreign secretary will hail the UK’s “friendship with our neighbours in Europe” as a key reason to be optimistic for trade:

Speaking days after pointing to low-tax Singapore as a post-Brexit model, Mr Hunt will call for Britain to “act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world”.

And he will say: “In a world where it is rarely possible for one country to achieve its ambitions alone, we have some of the best connections of any country – whether through the Commonwealth, our alliance with the United States and our friendship with our neighbours in Europe.”

But the comments were criticised as “utterly bizarre and short-sighted”, less than three months before Brexit, after Mr Hunt expressed support for crashing out of the EU with no deal if necessary.

Stephen Doughty, a Labour supporter of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain group, said “leading diplomats, military figures and former foreign secretaries” had warned Brexit would weaken the UK on the international stage.

“At a time when challenges from insecurity and extremism to Russian threats to climate change demand more not less global cooperation, Mr Hunt is leading the charge to break one of our most successful and impactful alliances – the one we have as part of the EU,” he said. 

No wonder we are in such a mess, when Ministers don't understand the consequences of their own policies.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Why the World Trade Organisation offers no solutions

There is a very useful article in today's Times from Danny Finkelstein explaining why the World Trade Organisation (or WTO as everybody refers to it) offers no solution to the problems Brexiteers argue exist with the European Union.

Finkelstein starts by outlining a brief history of the WTO, and in particular, how the US under Trump remains hostile to the body. He says that in 1948, 53 countries signed the Havana Charter which envisaged the creation of an International Trade Organisation (ITO).

This body was to sit alongside the World Bank and the IMF, and would help to open up free trade. It would drive reforms of global tariffs, regulations, employment standards and economic development and adjudicate on domestic decisions in these areas.

However, the ITO was doomed. American politicians, suspicious of the powers it would have over them, rejected the plan, and the other signatories followed suit. Instead, for almost half a century, they used what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It wasn’t until 1995 that the WTO was finally established.

He says that the WTO is weaker and less ambitious than the ITO was intended to be, but that doesn’t mean it has been any less controversial. It makes rules for global trade and its appellate body makes binding judgments in disputes. So of course it is controversial:

Its meetings have produced riots so violent that they paralysed decision making. Much of this was caused by protests against the perceived failure of the organisation to take labour and environmental standards seriously enough.

But the greater danger to its existence now comes from those who believe the WTO is overweening and failing to protect the domestic interests of its members. And in the vanguard is the Trump administration.

The US trade representative Robert Lighthizer has become one of Washington’s most powerful figures. His signature policy is to squeeze the WTO as part of a trade war with China. Lighthizer’s view, and the president’s, is that the WTO is biased against the US. He has long regarded its binding judgments as anti-democratic and some of the appellate body’s recent pro-China trade rulings have deepened his feeling that it has grown too big for its boots.

So the US is simply vetoing new appointments to the body, which is now down to three judges, the minimum needed to constitute a judging panel. It would not be quorate if there was a further dispute between China and the US, as judges would have to recuse themselves. And by the end of the year two of the current body finish their term. Unless the US removes its veto, the WTO will not be able to rule on its own rules. Beyond that the president has threatened that America might withdraw from the WTO. Something that proved the death sentence for its predecessor.

This is obviously of great concern to us, as we contemplate having to rely on WTO rules if we leave the EU without a deal this year. But there is a broader point. The WTO row shows that all the ingredients of our Brexit dispute will persist whatever happens.

Trading rules restrict the ability of countries to do what they want. That, after all, is their entire point. They stop nations engaging in a destructive competition to erect barriers against other nations.

Jeremy Corbyn provides the perfect example when he complains about the way the EU prevents countries from taking steps to promote domestic industry, so-called state aid. But the reason for keeping such rules in place is simple. State aid is like standing up in a crowd in order to get a better view. It makes sense for you in the few seconds before everyone stands up so they can carry on seeing. In the end, everyone is standing but no one has a better view.

So it makes sense to have an international agreement that prevents the sort of unilateral state aid that distorts competition. But that creates a problem: who makes these rules and who judges them? The judges have to be neutral, and the international bodies they represent are bound to seem remote from voters. So a democratic deficit develops.

In other words, not only does the WTO have the same weaknesses as the European free trade area, but it is being sabotaged by the US under Trump, to the extent that by the time we come to rely on it, the WTO could be completely emasculated. Finkelstein's conclusion is worth reflecting on:

At the extremes, there are three choices. First, to ignore democracy because it is just too hard to govern global trade democratically. Second, to ignore social policy, and have lots of free trade with labour standards decided at national level so the voters have control. Or third, to dispense with globalisation despite its economic advantages.

None of these is desirable or even practical. So you have to compromise. Lose a bit of democratic control, tolerate global trading that has some frictions, share control of social policy between national and international bodies.

It is easy to criticise any body set up to manage international trade, but the only way we can work is through compromise and, given the many disadvantages of the WTO, Trump's policy of dismantling it, and the many advantages of staying within the EU, where we conduct the majority of our trade, the only logical thing to do is to abandon Brexit altogether.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Is a no-deal Brexit in US interests?

Those of us who believe that President Trump would like to see the UK crash out of the European Union without a deal, so that he and his government can exploit our isolation and weakness in the world of trade to impose an unacceptable deal on us, which will lower food standards and compromise our public services, may feel our view has been validated by the recent intervention of the US Ambassador.

As the Independent reports, Woody Johnson, the US ambassador told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the kind of comprehensive trade deal with Britain sought by Donald Trump does not look possible under Theresa May’s Brexit plans.

He cast doubt on whether negotiating a “quick” and “massive” trade deal between the US and UK is feasible if the prime minister’s approach is approved. and said he detected a “defeatism” about Brexit in the UK. Mr. Johnson even felt able to take a swipe at the prime minister by suggesting that the UK was “in need of leadership”. If he means Donald Trump's kind of leadership then he can keep it.

The problem for the USA of course, is that May's deal would see the UK continue to adhere to a common rulebook with the EU after Brexit, which could mean some US goods do not meet required standards. America would likely push for farm produce, in particular, to be a part of any trade deal.

If staying in the EU, or at least maintaining our presence in the single market, means sending Donald Trump and his insulting trade agreement packing then that is another reason for a re-think on Brexit.

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