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Thursday, February 28, 2019

EU demands social media do more in tackling disinformation

The Guardian reports on the EU Commission's dissatisfaction at attempts by Facebook, Twitter and Google to tackle the well-documented problems with the use of their data, and their deep concern that elections to the European parliament in May could be the target of manipulation in a similar manner to the US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum.

The Commission say that Facebook has repeatedly withheld key data on its alleged efforts to clamp down on disinformation ahead of the European elections. Commissioners want “hard numbers” to prove that the company is living up to promises made in a voluntary code of conduct.

They have also complained that the world’s largest social network had, despite its pledges, only set up “fact checkers” with the job of scrutinising information shared on the site, in eight of the EU’s 28 member states:

Under the EU code, the web firms are encouraged to disrupt revenue for accounts and sites misrepresenting information, clamp down on fake accounts and bots, and give prominence to more reliable sources of news while improving the transparency of funding of political advertising.

EU sources said the sector was not raising its game but that Facebook was by far the worst offender of those being assessed, offering only “patchy” information on its efforts. “It is very difficult for us to see if they are doing what they should be doing,” said a source.

The EU’s security commissioner, Sir Julian King, and digital economy commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, writing in the Guardian ahead of publication of the progress report, warn that the companies have only “fallen further behind” since last month’s first report.

They said: “The results last time fell short of expectations – so we called on the platforms to go further and faster in their efforts to tackle disinformation. Sadly, despite some progress, rather than improve, they have fallen further behind. The lack of hard numbers is particularly worrying.

“Facebook has again failed to provide all necessary information, including any data on its actions in January on scrutiny of ad placements or efforts to disrupt advertising and monetisation incentives for those behind disinformation.”

The EU’s executive arm, which is threatening to bring in regulation on disinformation unless the social media companies fall into line, added that it welcomed Facebook’s recent decision to “share more information about political advertising on its platform with so-called ‘good faith’ researchers and organisations working on increasing transparency for the public”.

But “they still need to live up to the standards we are asking of them – and that they signed up to”, the commissioners warned. “It is vital that the platforms treat EU member states equally, and ensure that any relevant tools are available across the Union.”

It noted that Facebook had fact-checking partners “in only eight member states covering seven languages”.

What is clear is that if these social media companies are to be brought to heel and made more transparent then it will be far more effective if that action is taken by a multi-national body like the EU.

A single nation like the UK will come up against many more obstacles and will not have the clout needed to get US authorities to act in the event of non-compliance. This is another good reason to stay in the European Community.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The reality of climate change for our wildlife

It has been a lovely week so far, with temperatures far higher than usual for February. In fact the UK is experiencing the highest winter temperatures since records began over a hundred years ago. A temperature of 21.2C was recorded at Kew Gardens in London on Tuesday, beating the 20.6C measured at Trawsgoed, near Aberystwyth the day before.

As the Independent reports, the soaring temperatures have been described as “an extreme weather event” by the Met Office and come at the end of a particularly mild winter. The previous record was 19.7 and that has stood since 1998.

The paper adds that while February is now “within striking distance” of becoming the warmest February since records began, December was also two degrees warmer than average overall, with high temperatures early in the month reaching over 15C. They say that 27 councils across the country have declared a “climate emergency” in an effort to force authorities to act against climate change.

None of this is normal. It is part of the changes that we have instituted in our climate by damaging the ozone layer and using up the planet's resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished, and it has consequences, both for our continued occupation of the planet, food and water supplies and the impact on biodiversity.

The Independent says that the effects of the unseasonably warm weather are felt particularly keenly at this time of year by hibernating animals, who may emerge earlier and find there is not enough food to sustain them, and that the weather may turn cold again:

“It is mammals who will suffer worst,” Ben Keywood, an entomologist at Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust told The Independent. “If hedgehogs have started coming out over the last two weeks or so, they are going struggle to find a lot of the food they would normally eat as a lot of it is not out yet. So then [when the temperature falls] they may not have had enough to eat when they go back into hibernation and will have used up more of their fat reserves, which can make them significantly weaker.

“Frogs could also start to spawn, and that wouldn’t normally happen until March or April, if they spawn and then there is a frost, then it could kill all the spawn, which would be disastrous.”

The concern, he said, was that if climate change makes this a more regular occurrence and this keeps happening “then it could start having very severe effects on species because it can weaken them and change their behavioural patterns”.

He added: “Lots of species time their emergence - particularly birds - so it coincides with the food they need is at its most plentiful,” he said. “So if that starts early then they are out of sync with their food source. It could help species such as owls and birds of prey, as [species like dormice and harvest mice] will be more visible, and could be weaker.”

“It’s all about upsetting the balance - none of this is normal. While nature can and will adapt to seasonal fluctuations, it does send things off kilter and can be dangerous if it keeps happening.”

We have to be careful of course not to conflate specific weather events with climate change. However, there is wide recognition extreme weather becomes more likely as the baseline for average temperatures has risen:

Dr John Shonk, a scientist at Reading University’s meteorology department, said climate change means the likelihood of hot extremes is increasing.

He told The Independent: “Climate is all about long-term trends, you can’t necessarily attribute one extremely warm event to climate change, because weather changes week to week. Around about this time last year we were suffering from the effects of the Beast from the East when it was really cold. To attribute a single weather event to climate change - you can’t really do that.

“But then again the climate is warming, and when it comes to extremes, you are looking at how the likelihood of those extremes might change. Yesterday we had the first winter temperature past 20C in the UK and that’s the first time that’s happened. In the future climate, as the system warms, there’s an increasing chance we will see that more.”

Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE sums it up:

“While warmer winters might seem pleasant for many people, it is worth remembering that this is the result of a climate change trend that is also making heatwaves and heavy rainfall more frequent, as well as coastal flooding due to sea level rise. Last summer was the hottest on record in England and, according to the Office for National Statistics, the heatwave conditions were linked to hundreds of additional deaths across the UK.”

It may actually be too late to reverse these trends, but we have to try. Our future and the future of the planet depends on it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

How big is Labour's anti-semitism problem?

There is no doubt that Luciana Berger's defection to the nebulous Independent Group in the House of Commons has forced a number of senior figures in Labour to face up to the anti-Semitism problem in the party. But just how widespread is that issue?

According to this piece in the Independent, the Momentum founder, Jon Lansman believes that Labour has “a much larger” group of anti-semitic members than it recognises and which Jeremy Corbyn has failed to “deal with".

They say that the Labour leader’s long-standing ally believes “conspiracy theorists” had infiltrated the party as a consequence of its huge surge in membership in recent years:

Mr Lansman stopped short of backing the call from Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, for Mr Corbyn to take personal charge of the antisemitism complaints dogging Labour.

But he said: “I do think we have a major problem and it always seems to me that we underestimate the scale of it. I think it is a widespread problem.

“I think it is now obvious that we have a much larger number of people with hardcore antisemitic opinions which, unfortunately, is polluting the atmosphere in a lot of constituency parties and in particular online. We have to deal with these people.”

The paper adds that one Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, has told of “vile” abuse similar to that which had “hounded” Luciana Berger out of the party, to help form The Independent Group of MPs:

She said: “One of my friends has changed my Twitter password so I can’t see anything that’s being said about me. My staff hide all of the abuse.

“I get convictions, we’re had convictions, I get a lot of regular abuse and thankfully not from within my own local party in Stoke-on-Trent, but nationally we have party members have been saying vile things about me who have never met me.

“If they have those values, they have no right to be in my party at all and they can leave.”

When will Labour face up to this problem and deal with it?

Monday, February 25, 2019

Is it time to abolish Britain's feudal leasehold system?

There was a useful article in the Telegraph a few days ago, in which the author argued that the recent increase in the number of leasehold properties is undermining people's aspirations to home ownership.

The paper says that between July 2017 and 2018, new-build leasehold sales represented 44 per cent of all new-build by value and 38 per cent by number of properties. Leasehold apartment blocks are taking over, especially in London and the southeast. As if to add injury to this trend, by 2020 the government will have presided over the lowest level of housebuilding of any decade since the Second World War.

The case against leasehold properties is set out in stark terms:

Although Britain must boost supply, creating ever more tenancies is hardly the answer to the housing crisis. Young people should not scrimp, save, and sweat to be mortgaged tenants chained to a depreciating asset.

When you “buy” a flat in England and Wales, you’re still bound by a lease. “Owners” are allowed to live in their home only for a set period. Think of it as a long-term rental, but worse. You still pay an arbitrary, sometimes growing, (ground) rent. Uncapped and unregulated service charges are a constant worry.

Your money still flows to a landlord who nominally owns the building under this peculiar, feudal system of land tenure. With draconian forfeiture, the freehold landlord can take back your property and you lose all equity. Although a relatively rare phenomenon, the landlord can threaten it to get you (or your bank) to pay. What’s more, they can whack you with major works bills that can go into the tens of thousands. All these costs come on top of your mortgage.

Part of the appeal of owning a home is leaving the landlord. Unfortunately, flat living in this country means oppressive landlordism. The law may call the occupier a tenant, but they are expected to pay for the maintenance of someone else’s building. Technically, the occupier doesn’t even own their own flat. It’s the lease, not the property, which is your asset.

A landlord’s profit motive, however, will always clash with the occupier's need to protect their investment. High service charges do not affect the landlord. They can “sweat” the asset, let the building become rundown, while padding service charges. Of course, they’re not supposed to do this, but they know their tenants have to have ample stamina, time and funds to keep challenging them at the tribunal. People just shut up or sell up. It’s how leasehold survives.

The English and Welsh Governments need to step up to the plate and protect prospective purchasers by abolishing leasehold altogether and replacing it with commonhold, which the rest of the world uses.

Commonhold is a system of freehold tenure of a unit within a multi-occupancy building, but with shared responsibility for common services. It was established with the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, but that has not stopped developers continuing to build leasehold properties.

Preventing the development of new leasehold properties is the next big housing reform. Will any government be brave enough to actually do it.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Has the Home Secretary put the UK in greater jeopardy?

Whatever one's views about the request of Shamima Begum to return to the UK, there are some legitimate questions to be asked about the response of Sajid Javid in effectively rendering her stateless to prevent her re-entering the country.

The first of course revolves around the legality of the decision, and whether it sets a precedent for the future. As I understand the law, the UK Government does have the right to remove British citizenship from an individual and has done so 150 times since 2010, but that only applies if they have dual citizenship.

It may well be that Begum will challenge the decision in the courts, and if that happens then we will get some clarity on this issue. However, the arbitrary exercise of power for political reasons is not a good look for any Government Minister, and as such we must be wary about whether this particular decision opens the door to others, which may not look so clear cut to the popularist press.

The consequence of this decision that will trouble many however, is its impact on the terror threat in the UK. There is a strong argument that allowing Shamima Begum back into the UK is in itself a threat to our national security. On the other hand, if she were to co-operate then she could prove to be a valuable source of information and intelligence on those currently resident in the UK who are intent on doing harm.

Javid has been accused of using the power as an “easy way out”, rather than repatriating alleged Isis fighters to face trial, with figures showing that only one in 10 jihadis returning from Syria has been successfully prosecuted.

My concern coincides with this report in the Independent which says that the government was warned three years ago that stripping people of their citizenship may be an “ineffective and counter-productive weapon against terrorism”.

They say that official documents reveal a government-commissioned review warned in 2016 that removing extremists’ citizenship left them free to continue terrorist activities abroad, prevented monitoring and encouraged the “dangerous delusion that terrorism can be made into a foreign problem”:

Lord Anderson, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said a “scrutiny blackhole” made the impact of citizenship deprivations impossible to assess.

“There hasn’t been independent scrutiny of the exercise of this power, except in the occasional case that might end up in court,” he told The Independent.

“The independent review of counterterrorism law has served this country very well.

“It should in my view be extended to the use of citizenship deprivation powers, which is often used as a counterterrorism instrument.”

Lord Anderson was asked to review changes to the law that allowed the home secretary to strip naturalised British citizens of their nationality, even where they would be made stateless, in the belief they were eligible for the citizenship of another country.

It quoted research by academics in Canada saying it amounted to “a policy of catch and release, setting up today’s convicts as tomorrow’s foreign fighters” and exporting them to places where they can do more damage because they cannot be monitored. 

They warned that citizenship deprivations encouraged “the dangerous delusion that terrorism is (or can be made into) a foreign threat and problem”. His 2016 report warned that: “A citizenship deprivation power has been characterised as an ineffective and counter-productive weapon against terrorism.” 

A powerful tool in the grooming of potential recruits to ISIS is the exploitation of a feeling of alienation from society, and the idea that Western states are seeking to suppress Islam. The Home Secretary's decision plays into that narrative. We will have to see whether it aids or hinders extremists in the future.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Is an accidental 'no deal' a real possibility?

As February eases its way into March and the deadline for us leaving the EU approaches, it is little wonder then many people are getting jumpy at the fact that we still have no viable deal on the table for Brexit.

As the Guardian reports, one such person is the EU's chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, who has gone on the record to say he is more concerned than ever about an accidental no-deal Brexit in five weeks following a week of talks with Theresa May and the British negotiators that has got nowhere:

As the British prime minister heads to Egypt for an EU-Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, the bloc’s chief negotiator publicly said he believed there remained “a chance” of ratifying the deal.

But he told a French radio channel: “Today I am more worried than before” over the talks, adding that the UK needed to make decisions fast.

The EU official also told ambassadors privately, after the negotiations with the UK’s Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, and a visit by May to Brussels, that the chances of an “accidental” no-deal Brexit were high.

Barnier said the UK’s attorney-general, Geoffrey Cox, was looking for a legal assurance in addition to the withdrawal agreement that could allow him to advise MPs, as the government’s chief legal adviser, that the Irish backstop would be only temporary.

Cox wants to set out what conditions would need to be met for the backstop, if it were triggered, to be superseded by other arrangements, such as a technological fix. It is hoped this could be part of winning round MPs to May’s deal.

The British side now privately admit that a timelimit or unilateral exit mechanism on the backstop will not be accepted by the EU.

Barnier added that May had the option of threatening the Brexiters with an extension of article 50, and a delay to the 29 March Brexit day, to win them round to her deal, EU sources said.

The Commons is expected to vote on an amendment next week on whether to force May to request an extension by mid-March if a deal is not agreed by MPs.

But with the political situation in London volatile, the EU capitals have been warned by Barnier to be ready for the UK to crash out.

With all the political parties at Westminster in chaos, I fear that Barnier's prognosis may well be correct.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Are the Liberal Democrats coming across as too needy in their search for allies?

There is news this morning that a ninth MP has left Labour, however, as the Independent reports, Dudley North MP, Ian Austin is going to sit with the independent Independents. Confused? you should be.

In fact, Ian Austin's final destination means that he is not the ninth MP to desert Labour for some ill-defined grouping of malcontents, he is in fact the fourteenth Labour MP to make this walk. That is because the non-aligned MPs who have walked away from their party for various reasons (or who have been ousted) include former Labour MPs such as Ivan Lewis, Jared O'Mara, Fiona Onasanya, John Woodcock and Frank Field.

So far none of these five have shown any inclination to pair up with Chuka Umunna and his merry gang. That may well change as the Independent Group start to find an identity, some policies and a leader, but none of that is in place, and the question has to be what programme exactly can such a diverse group unite around?

The easy answer of course is opposition to Brexit, or at least an opportunity for people to vote on the final deal. They also share an antipathy to their former party. But in terms of further policy work there is nothing, and there is certainly no indication of future direction of travel that can justify the enthusiasm with which Vince Cable and his group of MPs have embraced the defectors.

Now, I like a good troublemaker as much as the next guy. I believe that it is healthy to stir the pot every now and again to see what emerges, but I am more cautious about making allies of these people. I am of the view that if we are to work with the Independent Group in the longer term we should at least have a common approach to the big political issues of the day, apart from Brexit.

This is not made easier by the fact that, whereas Vince and co. have been very nice, almost felicitous in their praise, members of the Independent Group have been downright nasty about the Liberal Democrats, almost as if they do not want to be tainted by association. That is no basis for a partnership.

And what about policies? Well, many members of the Independent Group voted for Heathrow expansion, which immediately raises questions about their stance on climate change. There has been no indication as to what they thing about electoral reform, though at least one was active in the No2AV campaign, and on a whole raft of policy areas where the Liberal Democrats have carved distinct positions such as civil liberties, internationalism etc, we have only silence.

That is only to be expected at such an early stage, so why is Vince Cable going gungho for an electoral pact, as if it were the second coming of the SDP? It isn't and nor is it likely to be. Has Vince never heard of playing hard to get?

At the moment the eleven Liberal Democrat MPs are acting like Billy-no-mates, hanging into the coat tails of whoever will have them. We are better than that. We have nearly 100,000 members, thousands of councillors and grassroots activity in hundreds of communities around Britain. The Independent Group have none of that. It does not help us to rebuild when we seem so eager to sacrifice our own identity for expedient alliances.

By all means carry out exploratory talks with the defectors, help them to establish themselves and look for common cause, but for goodness sake, could our MPs have some decorum in the way they approach this. And more importantly, could they also remember that the Liberal Democrats are a democratic party and that if they are to once more try to remould British politics, they need to take the membership with them.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Is Michael Gove the new Joseph Chamberlain?

History tells us that the championing of tariffs on imports by Joseph Chamberlain in the early 1900s through the Tariff Reform League, was a major factor in enabling a Liberal landslide in the 1906 General Election.

Free-trade stalwarts in the Liberal and Labour parties prevailed with the argument that such an arrangement would penalise voters by undermining their cost of living. Many working-class people at the time saw tariffs as a threat to the price of food. The election was won with the slogan 'big loaf' under a Liberal government, 'little loaf' under a Conservative government.

Liberals also commissioned a variety of posters warning the electorate over rises in food prices under protectionist policies, including one which mentioned that "Balfour and Chamberlain are linked together against free trade ... Don't be deceived by Tory tricks".

In the circumstances, it is surprising that the current Environment Secretary is seeking to resurrect this debate, albeit that Michael Gove's remarks could be taken in the context of seeking to scare MPs into voting through Theresa May's deal, to avoid a no-deal exit from the EU.

As the Guardian reports, Gove told the NFU Conference that the government will apply tariffs to food imports to protect British farmers in a no-deal scenario. He also contradicted some of his more hard-line colleagues by warning that delays were likely in Calais because of mandatory EU checks on food imports on the French side of the channel:

He told the National Farmers’ Union’s annual conference in Birmingham that reports that Britain would operate a zero tariff regime in order to secure frictionless trade in a no-deal scenario were “not accurate”.

“One thing I can reassure you it will not be the case that we will have zero rate tariffs on products, there will be protections for sensitive sections of agriculture and food production,” Gove said.

He later hinted that the tariffs would apply to beef and “particularly” lamb, citing livestock farmers as the most vulnerable in a no-deal scenario. He refused to reassure farmers who pressed him about protection for cereal farmers, suggesting zero tariffs were a possibility in some areas.

This championing of producers over consumers could well backfire on the Conservatives in the same way that it did for Joseph Chamberlain's Unionists, who were out of power for decades.

Gove however, has one advantage, a completely ineffectual opposition who are more concerned with facilitating Brexit than in championing the rights and interests of the British people.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Why Brexit is bad for our environment

The BBC report on warnings by nature charities that Wales risks losing 80% of the laws that protect its environment after Brexit with no plans in place yet to replace them. They say that Wildlife, habitats, air and water quality could all be affected:

With less than 40 days to go until the UK is set to leave the EU, WWF Cymru's director Anne Meikle warned "the rug will be pulled out from our existing environmental protections".

In her letter to the government she writes that "without these principles and governance structures in place, decisions will be significantly less robust and potentially indefensible".

She said legislation would risk being inoperable and people would lose the right and mechanism to challenge government where they failed to apply environmental laws effectively.

Currently Wales abides by hundreds of regulations and standards which apply across the EU to protect nature and guard against pollution.

The UK and Scottish governments have already announced consultations on plans to replace these laws after Brexit.

But in Wales, where control over environmental policies is devolved to the Welsh Government, ministers are yet to make an announcement.

This is not just about transferring EU rules into Welsh law. Currently members of the public can complain to the EU Commission free of charge, who can decide to investigate on their behalf. The BBC say that the most recent example is a complaint by river groups over the Welsh Government's handling of agricultural pollution in rivers. How people get redress for breaches of the law and who investigates needs to be considered by the Welsh Government as well:

Over the years, rulings from Brussels have also forced action over emissions of toxic gases at Aberthaw coal-fired power station in the Vale of Glamorgan and the creation of a marine protection zone off west Wales to help the threatened harbour porpoise.

In England, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced proposals for a new independent body - known as the Office for Environmental Protection.

But in a letter to the assembly's environment committee this week, Ms Griffiths said she felt the model set out by the UK government was not a "workable approach for Wales" and promised a consultation later in February.

The Welsh Government really need to step up to the plate on this. It is just seven weeks until we leave the EU and they haven't even consulted on options. We cannot afford to allow our environment to be a victim of Brexit.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Labour's red letter day?

The most significant blow to Jeremy Corbyn's Labour yesterday was not the defection of seven MPs to a poorly defined independent grouping, but the readmittance of Derek Hatton to the party.

This was the man who, in September 1985, as Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council, sent redundancy notices to 31,000 council workers through a private cab firm, so as to make a political point. That action in turn gave the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, the ammunition to root out the hard left from Liverpool.

It inspired Kinnock's most famous speech, at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth over 33 years ago, in which he accused Militant of the “grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”.

The Independent reports that as Kinnock spoke, Hatton shouted “Liar!” from the back of the hall, prompting the Labour leader to address his adversary directly: “I’m telling you, and you’ll listen – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.”

In the circumstances the decision to readmit Hatton sends an interesting message. The Labour Party has moved towards him, not vice versa. Kinnock turned the fortunes of his party around with that speech, Corbyn appears determined to undo that work.

That is evident by some of the social media comments yesterday and today, in which supporters of the current Labour leader seem happy to be rid of the seven defectors. For them the loss of the likes of Chuka Umunna is a good thing, while Hatton will be greeted like a prodigal son.

This is a red letter day for Corbyn's fan base, for everybody else it is confirmation of Labour's unelectability.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Digital Gangsters

A select committee report argues that Facebook deliberately broke privacy and competition law and should urgently be subject to statutory regulation, and denounces the company and its executives as “digital gangsters”.

The Guardian reports that the final report of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee’s 18-month investigation into disinformation and fake news accused Facebook of purposefully obstructing its inquiry and failing to tackle attempts by Russia to manipulate elections.

The report:
It is difficult to argue with Labour's deputy leader, Tom Watson who has called for "new independent regulation with a tough powers and sanctions regime to curb the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism and the forces trying to use technology to subvert our democracy.”

The paper says that the inquiry was turbocharged in March 2918, with the Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal:

The Observer revealed the company had secretly acquired data harvested from millions of Facebook users’ profiles and was selling its insights to political clients to allow them to more effectively manipulate potential voters. The company has since collapsed into administration.

The committee argues that, had Facebook abided by the terms of an agreement struck with US regulators in 2011 to limit developers’ access to user data, the scandal would not have occurred. “The Cambridge Analytica scandal was facilitated by Facebook’s policies,” it concludes.

The 108-page report makes excoriating reading for the social media giant, which is accused of continuing to prioritise shareholders’ profits over users’ privacy rights.

“Facebook continues to choose profit over data security, taking risks in order to prioritise their aim of making money from user data,” the report states, accusing the company of covering up leaks of user data. “It seems clear to us that Facebook acts only when serious breaches become public.”

Zuckerberg is also personally criticised by the committee in scathing terms, with his claim that Facebook has never sold user data dismissed by the report as “simply untrue”.

It is difficult to argue with this conclusion. Regulation beckons, but will the UK Government take the issue seriously, and to what extent are we able to properly regulate an international entity based in a foreign country?

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The long history of Chris Grayling gaffes

The latest controversy surrounding Chris Grayling, as reported by the Independent, prompted me to look back at past instances where the Transport Secretary has got himself in hot water.

The latest incident relates to Grayling's time as Justice Secretary, when he effectively privatised the probation services. This has now come back to bite him with the collapse of Working Links, which owns three Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) delivering probation services in Wales, Avon and Somerset, and Devon and Cornwall.

Under Grayling, ministers overhauled the arrangements for managing offenders in 2014 in a partial privatisation known as Transforming Rehabilitation. The National Probation Service was created to deal with high-risk cases, while remaining work was assigned to 21 CRCs.

The paper says that a "deeply troubling" report by Dame Glenys Stacey, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, revealed that staff at one of the companies was "under-recording the number of riskier cases because of commercial pressures":

Devon and Cornwall was the first CRC to be rated inadequate by HM Inspectorate of Probation in 2018-19, last November, when it was also found that staff were completing sentence plans to meet performance targets, without meeting the offender involved.

Dame Glenys said: "The professional ethos of probation has buckled under the strain of the commercial pressures put upon it here, and it must be restored urgently."

Naturally, this has raised urgent questions as to whether probation services are fit for purpose under this arrangement and whether they should have been given to the private sector in the first place. It is not the first time though, that Chris Grayling has put his foot in it.

There is of course the timetabling chaos on the railways at the end of last year, on Grayling's watch as Transport Secretary, leading to a regulator’s report which concluded that nobody had taken charge of the crisis, saying “a system problem” had been the primary cause.

Who can forget the criticism Grayling received in December when it emerged he had given a £13.8m contract to Seaborne Freight, to provide extra ferries to ease pressure on important freight routes between Dover and Calais, a company that owned no ferries and who appeared to have copied its terms and conditions from a takeaway outlet? That deal was subsequently scrapped leading to calls for Grayling to quit as Transport Secretary.

But there is more. In August 2009, Grayling, who was then Shadow Home Secretary, claimed Britain was turning into The Wire, an American TV series featuring murderous villains, cynical politicians and corrupt, lazy detectives.

In October 2015, Grayling accused journalists of “misusing” Freedom of Information laws to “generate” stories.

He told the House of Commons that the Freedom of Information Act is "on occasions misused by those who use it effectively as a research tool to generate stories for the media. That isn’t acceptable. It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how the Government is taking decisions and it is not the intention of this Government to change that.”

I am still not clear to this day what the difference is, though I can understand why this current Government might wish to avoid effective scrutiny.

There is also from October 2014, the proposals by Chris Grayling to reform the Human Rights Act, which were lambasted by former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, QC as being full of factual “howlers” and not thought through.

Back in April 2010, Grayling was in the media again, this time arguing that Bed and breakfasts run by Christians should be allowed to turn away gay couples because of their sexuality.

In November 2018, he was one of the cabinet ministers involved in the controversy over the introduction of gagging clauses which banned 40 charities and more than 300 companies from publicly criticising them, their departments or the prime minister, as part of deals costing the taxpayer £25 billion.

The Times reported that:
In June 2018, Grayling emerged as one of the Government Ministers who had concerns about the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, telling fellow MPs that he does not want to see them evacuated to a temporary location because it will undermine Britain’s democracy.

In December 2018, Chris Grayling said the government would “lead consumer uptake” of electrically-powered cars when he laid out his plan for tackling air pollution with a switch to battery-powered vehicles.

However, he has then came under fire for subsequently scrapping grants for plug-in cars, in a move condemned by vehicle manufacturers as “astounding”, while official figures revealed that only 29 of the 1,830 vehicles run by Department for Transport and its agencies are electric.

And then, of course, there is Brexit. Chris Grayling sat on the Vote Leave campaign committee alongside Dominic Raab, Liam Fox, and Andrea Leadsom. Vote Leave was fined £61,000  in July 2018, and reported to the police by the Electoral Commission after the watchdog found “significant evidence” of coordination with another campaign group, BeLeave.

In an expose of the European Research Group in December 2017, Open Democracy reported that data collected by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority covering the last year, showed that six cabinet members, along with the chief of staff and special adviser to the Brexit secretary, David Davis have each claimed £2,000 in parliamentary expenses for “professional” and “pooled” services from the ERG.

Five other subscriptions from former Tory cabinet ministers and whips, plus the current chair of the ERG, means this group alone have claimed more than £32,000 from the public purse. 

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, Penny Mordaunt, the newly-promoted defence secretary, David Gauk, the work and pensions secretary, Sajid Javid, the communities and local government secretary, Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons, and Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, have all used official expenses claims to pay for “ERG subscriptions” over the last 12 months. 

Perhaps this explains why Grayling was one of those in October 2014, who was calling on David Cameron to ditch the European Arrest Warrant, a suggestion that even Theresa May baulked at. She warned that a failure to back Britain’s membership of the European arrest warrant system raised a risk that the country would have to release more than 500 people from jail and the prospect that EU partners such as Ireland would refuse to hand over suspected republican terrorists or Islamist jihadists for trial in Britain.

I am sure that there is much more to report. The real question though, in the light of this history, is why is Chris Grayling still in the cabinet?

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Are the UK Government voter ID pilots in trouble?

At last, some good news. The Independent reports that Ministers' plans to introduce voter ID nationwide in elections are "falling apart" as three councils set to be involved in a major pilot have pulled out of the scheme.

The councils concerned have cited time pressures and the "volume of work" involved in participating in the trials as their reason for pulling out. Their decision raises questions over the feasibility of voter ID, which is already the subject of a legal challenge in the High Court:

The first set of trials took place in the 2018 local elections in five English boroughs and research from the Electoral Commission found 1,036 people were turned away due to incorrect identification.

East Staffordshire and Ribble Valley councils have now said they would not be participating in the 2019 round due to the scale of work involved; while Peterborough city council aired similar concerns, adding that uncertainty over the jailed MP Fiona Onasanya also complicates issues.

A spokesperson for Ribble Valley said: "Our returning officer believed the administration of the voter ID pilot on top of local government boundary changes would have been too resource intensive and could not have been carried out without potentially impacting the smooth running of the elections."

Peterborough city council added: "We have spoken to the cabinet office and due to the uncertainty surrounding the sentencing of the Peterborough MP, and the volume of work that this may entail, we have agreed with the cabinet office to withdraw from the pilot scheme in 2019."

It comes as a legal challenge against ministers' plans to rollout voter ID nationwide is set to be heard in the High Court next month after a judicial review was brought by 64-year-old Neil Coughlan earlier this year.

Rolling out the policy across the UK for a general election, according to an official cabinet office document, is estimated to range between £4.3m and £20.4m for three different models of voter ID.

The money spent on this scheme would be far better used to improve voter engagement. Instead it is putting people off voting, in a mirror image of some US states attempts at voter suppression. Surely it is time the experiment was abandoned.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Striking school pupils outshine bickering politicians

As the Times reports, the decision by many school pupils to go on strike today is causing some controversy. The paper says that some parents are undecided about whether to allow their children to break the rules to campaign, while others have accused schools of withdrawing permission under pressure from local authorities. Some schools that had told parents that children could have a day off were told by councils to take a harder stance:

They say that parents could be fined £60 if they permit their child to take unauthorised absence. Some pupils said that teachers had turned a blind eye or given tacit approval to preparations for the Youth Strike 4 Climate marches, even though many head teachers refused to authorise absences. In some schools pupils had been allowed to design banners to take on today’s climate change strikes. Others spent yesterday writing letters to head teachers explaining why they intended to walk out of school at 11am.

Nevertheless, as the BBC report, events are planned for Birmingham, Hereford and Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as Hay-on-Wye in Powys. There, children from a number of local schools will march through the town before meeting councillors to call for more cycle lanes and increased use of renewable energy.

The Times adds that pupils are expected to walk out of school in about 60 areas to attend marches, rallies and litter picks:

University students and adult activists have pledged to protest alongside the children. Some said that this was misguided and described the day of action as a “children’s crusade”.

Holly Gillibrand, 13, who has already walked out of school on Fridays five times, is co-ordinating strikes for her local area, Fort William. She is using social media to spread the word and putting up posters. She says that her teachers are supportive.

She said: “We are not impressed by our leaders’ inability to treat the climate and ecological crisis as the crisis it is, and people’s aversion to the action that is needed to limit catastrophic climate and ecological breakdown is depressing.”

She said she was encouraged by “some incredibly dedicated and passionate adults” such as the wildlife broadcaster Chris Packham and the anthropologist Jane Goodall.

Holly, who is in her second year at Lochaber High School, first became involved with the global protest in September last year. She said: “I have loved the environment and nature since I can remember and this has just grown into a passion to protect and conserve the natural world.”

Personally, I think that this sort of action is a vital part of the education process. Schools should not just be about cramming pupils for exams but also preparing them for future and alerting them to the big issues that we all face on a daily basis, so that they can make up their own minds on what they think and want to do about them. Schools should be enablers as well as educators.

The likes of Holly and all the other pupils who are leading this action day, form a startling contrast to the braying, bickering politicians in Westminster and the bully-boy tactics of climate change-deniers like Donald Trump.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The consequences of the Welsh Government's misguided popularism

I am a bit behind in catching up with this article on Wales-online, but that does nothing to lessen the seriousness of the issue that they have highlighted or its impact on public policy.

The news site reports that the independent board which monitors Cardiff prison has found that half of the men released from HMP Cardiff have nowhere to stay when they are released and many will deliberately reoffend in order to be sent back to prison, where they can at least get regular meals and can be warm:

Of 23 men interviewed on the day of their release, only 13 had a definite place to sleep that night. There was then further monitoring and a pattern emerged where half of those being released each day had no accommodation to go to.

One man was released and left with a travel warrant to Coventry, 44p in his pocket and nowhere to sleep that night, the report says.

Appointments were made for the men to make a housing application but "there was a clear expectation that none would be offered".

During the winter, there was "great concern" about the cold temperatures people were being released into.

Even those who said they had a place to stay were relying on a friend or relatives sofa or temporary hostel accommodation.

However, many told the board they expected to be sent to Huggard, a hostel in Cardiff city centre - something they feared.

"There was a general expectation held by men without accommodation that they would be sent to the Huggard Centre hostel. A number of men expressed fears in relation to the hostel, citing being pressurised into taking drugs, facing violence or having possessions stolen".

The article adds that Welsh Government statistics for 2016-17 showed 12% of those who were homeless said their reason was due to leaving prison.

This was an issue I sought to tackle when, as a Deputy Minister in 2001, I pushed through a change of the law in the Welsh Assembly that re-established clear categories of people, who have a local connection, who should not just be rehoused first but would also require additional support to enable them to remain in their new home.

These categories were a care leaver or person at particular risk of sexual exploitation between the ages of 18 and 21; a 16 or 17 year old; a person fleeing domestic violence or threatened domestic violence; a person homeless after leaving the armed forces; and a former prisoner, homeless after leaving custody.

Unfortunately, in 2013 he Welsh Government decided to succumb to pressure from some councils and, in the face of all the evidence, removed the priority for ex-prisoners. This was a change I fought at every stage, including this article for the then-website, Wales Eye. I wrote that the removal of the statutory duty to rehouse ex-prisoners is a serious misstep:

That proposal is being made for purely popularist reasons and belies the evidence in the government's own research, published in 2008, that concluded that 75% of those offenders most likely to reoffend have a housing need compared to 30% of the general offender population. That report suggested that more joined up thinking is needed to prevent re-offending. It said:

'Securing appropriate accommodation has long been one of the main problems associated with leaving prison as well as a central focus of resettlement work. Research published by the Home Office in 2001, and cited in the Social Exclusion Unit report, noted that around one-third of prisoners do not have a settled home prior to going into prison and around one-third will lose their home during their sentence, making the resettlement role a significant and challenging one. If an offender/ex-offender lacks a suitable place to live, it is more difficult for them to get and keep a job or to engage effectively with any other interventions in relation to their needs. Accommodation is therefore identified as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the reduction of re-offending.'

As Shelter Cymru points out, if this is the case then surely the solution is not to destabilise the 'necessary' condition but rather to ensure that the supporting conditions are more effectively met. They argue that the new duty would be more effective if it were underpinned by priority status to guarantee a right to temporary accommodation while prevention work is being carried out. They say that without a right to temporary accommodation, it will be virtually impossible for local authorities to work with homeless prison leavers effectively.

Gofal Cymru is also scathing about the proposal to drop this particular priority group. In their submission to the government they say: 'It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of prisoners have a mental health problem of some kind and that more than 70 per cent of both male and female prisoners have at least two mental disorders. Many are from disadvantaged backgrounds, have substance misuse issues and poor literacy rates. It is clear that a significant proportion of the prison population is vulnerable and we therefore question the benefits of amending the priority need definition. We fear that an unintended consequence of this proposal will lead to many vulnerable former prisoners being denied access to accommodation.'

Shelter Cymru say that if these individuals end up street homeless on release, it is highly likely that they will fall out of touch with prevention services and back into a cycle of reoffending. This has consequences for community safety, healthcare, social services and, eventually, for homelessness as well.

Cymorth Cymru, an umbrella group for supported housing providers concur. They say: 'It is clear from the conversations that we've had with our members that simply putting a roof over someone's head is not enough. This is as true for those leaving prison as it is for many others. As such, we strongly feel that removing the housing element is the wrong response and that instead we should be focussing on the factors such as support that complement the provision of accommodation.'

My concern is similar, that without a statutory duty to rehouse prisoners underpinning rehabilitation, councils will just not bother to do the work and reoffending rates, which are already higher than those in England will rise even further.

It gives me no satisfaction to see those concerns realised on the streets of Cardiff.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Welsh Labour under fire for 'aborted' anti-semitism inquiry

Despite attempts by Welsh Labour to close down an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism on the part of Cardiff Central Assembly Member, Jenny Rathbone, the issue stubbornly refuses to go away.

As the BBC reports, Rathbone was investigated after suggesting security fears of Jewish people at a Cardiff synagogue could be "in their own heads". She subsequently apologised and was given a formal warning, but details of the investigation have not been published.

Now Welsh Jewish representatives have spoken out, accusing Welsh Labour of failing to take into consideration the feelings of the Jewish community in the way they handled the investigation:

"We're concerned at the lack of transparency," said Laurence Kahn, chairman of the South Wales Jewish Representative Council.

The Cardiff Central AM was suspended from the Labour assembly group and referred for investigation by the UK Labour Party after her remarks were revealed by the Jewish Chronicle in November.

But she was readmitted to the group before the party investigation was complete.

The investigation has now concluded and Ms Rathbone has been given a formal warning and ordered to undergo training.

"The question is: are they trying to satisfy the Jewish community and deal with our concerns?" Mr Kahn asked.

"And if the answer to that is yes then obviously they ought to be giving us the information that is lacking at the moment."

Mr Kahn claimed the readmission of Ms Rathbone to the Labour assembly group before the investigation had finished was "inappropriate":

"They should have had a little bit more consideration for the local Jewish community," he added.

First Minister Mark Drakeford should explain the timing of Ms Rathbone's readmission, according to Stanley Soffa, representative for the Cardiff Reform Synagogue on the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Labour has not explained why Jenny Rathbone was readmitted before the investigation was complete.

Whatever, the process that was followed or the outcome it does seem clear that yet again Labour have failed to deal with a complaint of this nature in a sensitive and satisfactory manner. This, in turn, adds to the dossier that is building up against the party on this issue and feeds into the wider story reported a few days ago by the BBC.

They have discovered that in the ten months between April 2018 and January 2019, the Labour Party received 673 complaint alleging acts of anti-Semitism by its members, whilst the Parliamentary Labour Party have complained about a lack of information:

The data published revealed:
It is not a pretty picture.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

There is no Brexit dividend

For those who claimed that Brexit would bring unparalleled prosperity and freedom, while all the claims of an economic turndown were just 'project fear', today's news that official figures have confirmed the UK suffered its worst year for GDP growth since 2012 must come as a bit of a shock.

It may certainly be a surprise to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has stated that Britain can reap an economic dividend from Theresa May’s Brexit deal. He may well still be poring over the highly critical report by the Treasury select committee which warns that his claims of a “deal dividend” if Britain avoided a no-deal exit lacks credibility, wondering how to spin it in his favour.

As the Guardian reports, the committee's criticism came after data on Monday showed the economy grew by just 0.2% in the final three months of 2018, down from 0.6% in the third quarter. The fourth-quarter figures contained signs of an even sharper slowdown, with the economy posting a decline of 0.4% in December amid signs that Brexit uncertainty is taking hold:

For 2018 as a whole, GDP growth slipped to its lowest since 2012, at 1.4%, down from 1.8% in 2017.

Nicky Morgan MP, the Conservative chair of the committee, said Hammond’s “dividend” claim, at the Conservative party conference last year, had already been undermined by the government’s independent forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility. The OBR had told the committee the dividend was not an economic boost so much as “avoiding something really very bad” in the form of a no-deal departure.

“The OBR already assumes an orderly Brexit, so there won’t be a ‘deal dividend’ beyond the forecast just by avoiding no-deal. Business confidence may improve with increased certainty, but it’s not credible to describe this as a dividend,” said Morgan.

The OBR has made a smooth departure from the EU a key part of its forecasts, which prompted the Treasury committee to state there is no evidence of an economic boost from supporting the deal over and above those central estimates.

Hammond has repeatedly suggested that, should parliament throw its weight behind Theresa May’s Brexit plan, it would generate a dual economic boost for the country by lifting the fog of uncertainty blocking businesses investment, while also allowing him to spend public funds held in reserve for a no-deal scenario.

As if to emphasise the closeness of the cliff edge we are hurtling towards, growth figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed that business investment in the final three months of 2018 declined sharply. At the same time corporate spending tumbled for the fourth successive quarter – falling by 1.4% in the final quarter of 2018 alone - for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis.

In addition companies have intensified their contingency planning to cope with the possibility of a disruptive Brexit. Car manufacturers are stockpiling parts, banks have moved employees to Ireland and continental Europe and two Japanese electronics firms, Panasonic and Sony, have moved their EU headquarters to mainland Europe.

The paper also reports that GDP growth in December plunged into reverse, with a broad-based slump across each of the key sectors for the economy. The manufacturing sector, which makes up about a tenth of the economy, fell into recession, with six months of negative growth in the longest negative run since September 2008 to February 2009, the depths of the financial crisis.

And we haven't even left the EU yet.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Can our public services survive another budget?

As a local councillor I am currently in the process of scrutinising Swansea's latest budget proposals. Like other councils we have been badly hit by cuts in funding, though we remain better off than councils on the other side of Offa's Dyke due to the protection offered by past Welsh Governments.

Unfortunately the current Welsh Government has failed to pass on the 1% real term increase in its budget for next year, and that has added to the difficult decisions that are having to be made. But fear not, the Tories have promised to end austerity, and surely that means more money for future years. Or does it?

In The Times the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has warned that the chancellor will have to find billions of pounds in next month’s spring statement if he is to spare public services another brutal squeeze and deliver on his promise to end austerity.

They say that departments excluding health, defence and overseas aid face more cuts under the government’s spending plans, on top of the £40 billion they have endured already. That will knock on in the money allocated to the Welsh Government, and put local services under even more pressure.

The IFS say that to ease the pressure and allow spending to rise in line with both inflation and population growth, Philip Hammond will need to find an extra £5 billion by 2023-24. To do so he will have to raise taxes, cut other spending or borrow more.

The paper says that Hammond has very little wriggle room. He has promised to use some of the £15 billion of borrowing headroom against his fiscal rules if a Brexit deal is agreed but there is no guarantee it will have been in time. Until then, he wants to keep it in reserve for no-deal contingency plans.

In addition, a recent reclassification of student loans will also increase borrowing by £12 billion, virtually wiping out his war chest, making it difficult for the chancellor to borrow more without looking fiscally irresponsible:

Last week the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggested that he might have to abandon his rules. The IFS noted that “the chancellor remains some way off achieving his stated overarching fiscal objective of eliminating the deficit entirely by the mid-2020s”.

Public services would face an intensified squeeze if there was a no-deal Brexit, the IFS added. “This would mean lower spending and higher taxes in the medium term,” it said. In the short term, it would trash the government’s fiscal plans as it “might well raise spending to support the economy, mitigate the impacts for the worst-hit sectors or areas and provide funding to departments now required to perform additional functions, notably at the border”.

It added: “Any boost to spending would be temporary, and further austerity would eventually be required.

We are at a crossroads. The IFS analysis suggests yet more years of austerity for many public services, albeit at a much slower pace than the last nine years, unless the Chancellor is prepared to step up to the mark and deliver on his rhetoric.  The question is whether public services can survive any further cuts.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

I see no ships

At the Battle of Copenhagen, Horatio Nelson famously put a telescope to his blind eye and announced that he could not see the signal calling on him to end the action and to retreat.

It wasn't quite 'I see no ships' but it wasn't far off, as the British Admiral, Sir Hyde Parker, was offering Nelson an honourable route out of a bloody action, which he feared could not be won against overwhelming odds.

Nelson's courage and leadership would be quite handy in today's political climate, as the UK Government faces up to its own incompetence in dealing with Europe and, indeed, with its own members, in trying to reach a rapprochement with the EU.

And before some clever-clogs comes along to draw a parallel between the Napoleonic wars and Brexit, it is worth pointing out that England was allied with a number of European countries in the fight against France.

Unfortunately, we are stuck with the likes of Transport Secretary, Christopher Grayling, whose record of failure is staggering. As the Independent reports, Grayling is facing calls to quit after the government scrapped a multi-million pound ferry contract to provide no-deal Brexit services, awarded to a firm with no ships.

The paper says that the under-fire transport secretary was widely criticised in December when it emerged he had given a £13.8m contract to Seaborne Freight, to provide extra ferries to ease pressure on important freight routes between Dover and Calais. He and his department have now admitted defeat, terminating the contract after another firm, Arklow Shipping, stepped away from the deal:

The row began when tender documents slipped out on Christmas Eve revealed Seaborne Freight had never run a Channel service and owned no ferries.  It also emerged that the company appeared to have copied its terms and conditions from a takeaway outlet.

Grayling had already faced criticism last summer because of timetabling chaos on the railways. This fiasco had left thousands of passengers stranded. A regulator's report concluded that nobody took charge even when it became clear the project was in serious trouble.

Despite these controversies, the Transport Secretary remains a leading member of a government drifting rudderless, clueless and with no discernible leadership skills as the storm clouds gather around us.

Collectively the cabinet are holding eye pieces to their blind eye as they fail to see what is becoming increasingly clear to the rest of us, the best deal is to stay in the EU and any other course of action could hole the UK below the water line.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Is Christopher Chope the real face of today's Tory Party?

There are many top Tories who are determined to modernise the Conservative Party in the hope of it beginning to look like modern Britain. Unfortunately, polls of Tory members consistently demonstrate how out-of-touch they are with the majority of people in this country.

As the New Statesman reports, for example, the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project’s survey of Conservative Party activists in June last year found large majorities in favour of a no-deal Brexit and just 14 per cent supporting a second referendum in the event that Theresa May’s deal is voted down.

That result was widely out of line with the rest of the country at the time and I suspect that it is not the only issue in which the UK as a whole, and the Conservative Party specifically, differ on.

It should be no surprise therefore to read in today's Guardian that the Conservative MP, Christopher Chope, has once more outraged people by blocking socially important legislation. The paper says that having gained notoriety after he blocked a bill to make upskirting a criminal offence, Chope used the same parliamentary tactic to halt a planned law making it easier to protect girls from female genital mutilation (FGM).

The FGM proposal, called the Children Act 1989 (amendment – female genital mutilation) bill, is intended to improve the 2003 law that prohibited the practice by allowing family courts to make interim care orders about children deemed at risk, simplifying the process.

Chope has obstructed a series of bills in this way, including a bill to allow a women’s conference to be held in the Commons. He argues that even if he backs the intent of such bills he objects to them because he does not support the procedural principle of legislation being passed without debate at second reading.

As Commons officials read out a series of bills on Friday afternoon, Chope and fellow backbencher Peter Bone objected to a series of them, including another proposed by Goldsmith, to help the finances of Kew Gardens.

Interestingly, Chope did not object to two private members’ bills proposed by Bone, although other MPs did, so he is not even being consistent in his reasoning. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Chope is continuing to represent the dinosaur tendency in the Conservative Party, and that if they really do want to modernise then they need to start by jettisoning him and all those like him from the House of Commons.

Hell may freeze over before any of this happens, and as this is unlikely, then the Brexiteers who promoted us leaving the EU without a plan, can be content that their special place will remain warm and toasty for them.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Is this civil war?

The clickbait for the Independent's article on Jeremy Corbyn's letter to the Prime Minister and the backlash from the Parliamentary Labour Party is 'Corbyn sparks Labour civil war over referendum', and judging by the reaction of some MPs on social media that is certainly what it looks like to the outsider.

The paper says that Corbyn is battling to calm a growing Labour civil war over his refusal to support a fresh Brexit referendum, as some of his MPs threatened to quit the party in protest:

The Labour leader was forced to justify his intentions after his new offer to help Theresa May deliver Brexit triggered accusations that he had torpedoed his party’s policy of keeping a public vote on the table.

Amid growing tensions, Mr Corbyn wrote to party members to insist that party backing for a Final Say referendum remained an option – hours after furious Labour MPs accused their leader of helping enable Brexit.

A number of MPs, such as Pontypridd's Owen Smith and Liverpool Wavertree's Luciana Berger have even talked about quitting as Labour MPs, amongst talk of a breakaway party, and this forms the backdrop to a more serious dispute that goes to the heart of the left-right struggle within the Labour Party and Corbyn's failure to out the anti-Semitism row to bed.

As the Telegraph reports, Berger, who is a prominent Jewish MP, has been threatened with deselection by hard-Left constituency members over her criticism of Jeremy Corbyn and his handling of Labour’s anti-Semitism row.

The paper says that Labour MPs on Thursday night rallied behind Ms Berger, who has been subjected to a torrent of racist abuse in recent weeks, as it emerged that supporters of Mr Corbyn have begun laying the groundwork for ousting her:

It comes after the Liverpool Wavertree MP this week hit out at the Labour leadership over its failure to rid the party of anti-Semites, warning that abuse directed at Jewish members was increasingly “going unchecked”.

In response, a number of activists in her constituency party have put forward no confidence motions, accusing Ms Berger of “continually using the media to criticise the man we all want to be prime minister”.

The Telegraph has learnt that one of the signatories, Kenneth Campbell, is a far-Left activist who has previously accused Ms Berger of being a “disruptive Zionist” that should be replaced with a more socialist candidate.

He also suggested Dame Margaret Hodge, a fellow Jewish MP who has been similarly critical of the Labour leader, may have been motivated by her alleged “alternative financial interests”.

They add that Berger has repeatedly been targeted by online trolls and last year required a police escort at Labour’s party conference after receiving death threats. This is her testimony in the anti-Semitism debate in the House of Commons in April last year:

Yet, as I said in Parliament Square outside this place—it pains me to say this as the proud parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement—in 2018, anti-Semitism is now more commonplace, more conspicuous and more corrosive within the Labour party. That is why I have no words for the people purporting to be both members and supporters of our party and using the hashtag JCforPM who have attacked me in recent weeks for my comments, for speaking at the rally against anti-Semitism, and for questioning the remarks of those endorsing the anti-Semitic mural. They say I should be de-selected, and they have called it all a smear.

There are people who have accused me of having two masters. They have said that I am Tel Aviv’s servant, and called me a paid-up Israeli operative. Essentially, this is anti-Semitism of the worst kind, suggesting that I am a traitor to our country. They have called me Judas, a Zionazi and an absolute parasite, and they have told me to get out of this country and go back to Israel. 

However the attempt to de-select Berger is dressed up, it is difficult to move past the racist persecution she has suffered. This attempt to deselect her is the strongest indication yet of Corbyn's failure to deal with this problem.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Corbyn letter places Labour firmly on the side of the Brexiteers

While UK Ministers and Donald Tusk exchange insults over the Government's failure to properly prepare for Brexit, there has been an interesting development at home where Jeremy Corbyn has finally, and publicly, got off the fence and aligned the Labour Party behind the movement to leave the EU.

It has, of course, been clear for some time that Corbyn is a Brexiteer, but his letter to Theresa May setting out his party's five demands has finally confirmed that and, more importantly, shown that he has wrestled control of this agenda from more pro-EU figures such as Keir Starmer.

As the Independent reports, in his letter Corbyn calls for a “permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union”, stating: “This would include alignment with the union customs code, a common external tariff and an agreement on commercial policy that includes a UK say on future EU trade deals.

“We believe that a customs union is necessary to deliver the frictionless trade that our businesses, workers and consumers need, and is the only viable way to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.”

The paper adds that Labour also want a close alignment with the single market “underpinned by shared institutions and obligations, with clear arrangements for dispute resolution” as well participation in EU agencies and funding programmes. However it notably drops Labour’s previous demand to secure the ”exact same benefits” of the single market.

There are also calls for “unambiguous agreements on the detail of future security arrangements, including access to the European Arrest Warrant and vital shared databases”.

This is a clear acceptance that the UK should leave the EU and drops any pretence that the party might support a further referendum on the terms of the deal, that would also provide the option of staying in.

The Liberal Democrats are now the only UK-wide party backing a further referendum on those terms and advocating an 'exit from Brexit'.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Right-wing think tank issued with formal warning after Brexit report ‘breached charity law’

The Independent reports that right-wing think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), has been issued with a formal warning over breaches of charity law following the publication of a Brexit report.

They say that the Charity Commission‘s warning was handed down in relation to a publication which urged Theresa May to ditch her Chequers plan and which the regulator found was “not sufficiently balanced and neutral”. The document, “Plan A+ Creating a Prosperous Post-Brexit UK”, was backed by prominent Brexiteers David Davis, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg when it was published in summer 2018:

The commission said the report “sought explicitly to change government policy on an issue unrelated to the charity’s purposes,” amounting to a breach of regulations on political activitiy and campaigning.

The IEA, which is registered as an educational charity, removed the report from its website after receiving a draft warning from the commission but said it was ”disappointed” with the report, which it claimed had “extremely widespread and worrying implications”.

The regulator’s warning said the IEA ”was not sufficiently balanced and neutral, as required by law from charities with educational purposes,” and also criticised the free-market think thank for only inviting speakers “who held a particular set of views” to the report’s launch event.

This risked “the public perception that the IEA is politically biased and has a political viewpoint on a key government policy,” the commission said.

Speakers at the launch event included Mr Davis, the former Brexit secretary, and Mr Rees-Mogg, the Conservative backbencher.

The commission said the event ”provided a platform” for Brexiteers to campaign against the government’s EU withdrawal proposals. This “clearly constitutes political activity” and was “an inappropriate use of charitable resources”, it added.

The commission said the report “contravened the legal and regulatory requirements” for educational charities and “amounted to misconduct and mismanagement on the part of the trustees”.

This is yet another pro-Brexit body that has had its knuckles rapped for breaking the rules. No wonder people think that a clear pattern is developing.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Whither democracy?

Anyone who has seen the chilling docu-drama 'Vice' will already be in despair at the condition of democracy in the United States.

The film recorded how Vice-President Dick Cheney quietly, but effectively accumulated vast power for the US Presidency that potentially usurped the checks and balances put in place by the US constitution, and trampled over the human rights of America's 'enemies', while at the same time further enriching powerful businessmen who were allied to Cheney and his friends.

The report by the US based Freedom House think-tank should come as no surprise therefore. As the Independent says, the organisation argues that democracy is undergoing an “alarming” decline across the world as a growing number of countries move towards authoritarian rule. They believe that 2018 was the 13th consecutive year of deteriorating freedoms around the globe:

A total of 68 countries suffered a decline in political rights and civil liberties during the past 12 months, with only 50 counties registering any progress in these areas, it said.

“More authoritarian powers are now banning opposition groups or jailing their leaders, dispensing with term limits, and tightening the screws on any independent media that remain,” the report stated.

Experts also identified a troubling “crisis of confidence” in the US and Europe, where far-right populist forces are pushing against long-held democratic principles like the separation of powers, press freedom and the legal protection of migrants.

Hungary fell from “free” to “partly free” status in the past year. The report said Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had presided over “the most dramatic decline” in civil liberties ever charted by the organisation inside the European Union.

Serbia also dropped to “partly free” status because of election irregularities and President Aleksandar Vucic’s accumulation of extraconstitutional powers.

The organisation also offered a damning assessment of the health of US democracy, noting Donald Trump’s attacks on the rule of law and fact-based journalism. The report found his government had “improperly restricted” the rights of asylum seekers and immigration policies had become “excessively harsh or haphazard”.

“The greatest danger comes from the fact that American democracy is not infinitely durable, especially if a president shows little respect for its tenets,” said Michael J Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Anti-democratic rhetoric and the rejection of democratic constraints on power can be first steps towards real restrictions on freedom.”

They further highlight that Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan re-elected for further terms last year, while the National People’s Congress in China rubber-stamped an amendment abolishing a two-term limit on the presidency, allowing Xi Jinping indefinite rule:

In Central America, meanwhile, Nicaragua dropped to “not free” following a crackdown on anti-government protests, Venezuela was deemed to have held a “profoundly flawed” election, and in Brazil the newly-elected Jair Bolosnaro expressed his nostalgia for military dictatorship.

A growing number of governments have reached beyond their own borders to target expatriates.

Freedom House found that 24 countries around the world – including Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – have targeted political dissidents abroad with practices such as extradition requests, kidnapping and assassination in the past year.

Ethnic cleansing is another growing trend, with an increase in regimes making concerted efforts to alter the ethnic composition of their territory and attacks on freedom of expression has been aided by new tools in internet censorship and surveillance.

The researchers say none of this is new: since 2006, a total of 116 countries have seen a decline in democratic freedoms, while only 63 countries have experienced growth. It does not make good reading.

Monday, February 04, 2019

What next for UK energy policy?

The cancellation or deferment of the new nuclear power plant at Wylfa in Ynys Mon has brought UK energy policy into sharp focus. The UK Government seem to be prepared to pay the high price of electricity generated by new nuclear power plants, but leaving their construction to the free market has not proved to be so clever, given the huge capital investment required and the long lead-in times before any return on that expenditure comes on stream.

What is puzzling is why ministers are happy to sanction high feed-in tariffs for nuclear but not comparable payments for tidal, as evidenced by the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. In fact it is far from clear what the aims of UK energy policy is given the reluctance of the UK Government to take any lead on supply or to spend money on key strategic investment.

In today's Times, Tony Lodge, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, says news that Germany will need to find large new supplies of electricity after announcing the gradual closure of its coal-fired power plants should concern British policymakers and those interested in our energy security.

He says coal-fired plants supply 40 per cent of German electricity and will now be run down, the aim being to replace this lost capacity with more power imports and renewables. The decline in baseload electricity supply will be further exacerbated by the decision eight years ago to close all of Germany’s remaining nuclear plants by 2022:

British ministers should examine this decision closely, given their policy to support, approve and install more and more undersea cables, known as interconnectors, to provide future access to spare electricity supplies from Europe. Part of this strategy is based on the theory that this can provide Britain with cheap, abundant electricity when needed. But falling capacity margins, such as in Germany and also now in Belgium and France, will mean much tighter supplies and higher prices in the future.

Plans show that the expansion in interconnectors could result in up to a fifth of domestic electricity supply being dependent on them by the end of the next decade, as power plants across Britain close without replacement.

This winter’s cold spell has led to high electricity demand across Britain. Last Wednesday night, gas-fired plants were supplying 50 per cent of our electricity, coal 16 per cent, nuclear 15 per cent and the country’s 9,400 wind turbines just 4 per cent, with other fuels and imports making up the rest. Yet Britain is likely to have closed all of its coal-fired power stations within five years and half of its nuclear capacity will be retired by 2025.

None of this is helped by a European Court of Justice ruling just before Christmas which declared that the main flank of UK energy policy, the capacity market which pays companies to generate electricity, is illegal state aid. Whitehall is nervously trying to keep generators and investors on board while the policy is suspended, in the hope that the European Commission can resolve the issue.

He argues that following the collapse of the new nuclear build plan, the government must now prioritise the construction of more gas-fired power plants in its energy white paper, due out this summer. He says, and I agree, that more interconnectors do not guarantee the once-anticipated abundant and cheap power supplies and are not a replacement for domestic generation.

This is absolutely correct, but it still not clarify what the objectives of UK energy policy are. In my view it should be threefold: 1) to guarantee energy security; 2) to tackle climate change; and 3) to ensure that there is a plentiful, secure and reasonably-priced supply for industry. But how to achieve this? One of the comments on the article appears to point us in the right direction:

There are a few essentials in a nation’s power generation capability: 
  1. You cannot leave it to the vicissitudes of the Free Market. It has to be a partnership operationally between the public and the private sector but at a strategic/investment level it’s a Government responsibility. 
  2. Investment is long term. You should aim for a power plant life of 25 years or more. 
  3. A mix of energy sources is desirable. Coal, Oil, Gas, Solar, Nuclear, Wind, Hydro, and imports all have their part to play. 
  4. The UK’s current policy is not only illegal but sub-optimal. 
  5. Over time the relative production costs (including capital charges) of different energy sources will vary considerably. A strong argument for diversity. 
  6. Hydrocarbon generation (including Coal) must be in the mix. With modern generation methods the emissions can be contained. 
  7. Renewables will have an increasing part to play but the idea (for example) that “Wind is good, Gas is bad” is simplistic. 
Perhaps, Ministers can now provide more clarity as to what their approach is to this subject.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Brexit: is it worth it?

As if watching the news was not bad enough, today's Independent seeks to depress us even more with a series of headlines, which underline the depths to which our politics has sunk.  Switching from the banal to the serious, these latest developments in the Brexit saga tell us exactly why we have become a laughing stock in the world. It sounds even worse when you listen to the way this American TV presenter describes the dilemma we are in.

And the graphic doesn't even cover this story on the BBC, that Nissan is expected to announce that it is cancelling a planned investment at its plant in Sunderland. In 2016 the car maker said it would build the new model of its X-Trail SUV in the UK after receiving "assurances" from the government over Brexit. The Japanese company is expected to say investment will be now be pulled, rather than existing work being halted.
This is what Leave UK tweeted in October 2016, when the future of this investment was being questioned:
Project Fear claims Nissan would scale back UK operation could not have been further from the truth! #BrexitBritain
Another strike-out for the people with the cracked crystal ball, who first brought us a bus pledging £350 million a week for the NHS and many other magnificent works of fiction, but back to the Independent.

The paper tells us that Rob Price, head of the Acro criminal records office, has warned dangerous criminals could go free in the UK after Brexit if police officers cannot access European conviction records. He said EU conviction records are “critical” to decisions on whether to charge or release foreign suspects, and how to protect the public.

There is a concern that this access will be switched off on 29th March. But, yes we did actually warn that this might happen during the referendum campaign.

Then there is the suggestion that the Queen would be evacuated from London if riots broke out following Brexit. Rumours that she will be in a fast car driven by Prince Phillip have not been substantiated.

The stories come thick and fast, including the claim that NHS staff could be asked to sleep at work if traffic is gridlocked in the event of a no-deal Brexit, according to contingency plans being drawn up by one Kent trust. Okay, they are reaching a bit here, but the big concern with the NHS remains that the current crackdown on EU citizens and migrant workers could leave many hospitals short-staffed.

But finally we have two stories which illustrate more than any other how broken our political system is, with an out-of-touch and impotent Parliament and ignorant MPs spreading their prejudices around as if they had been carried down Mount Sinai, carved on stone by Moses himself.

The Independent tells us that John McDonnell has accused Theresa May of launching a “dangerous” bid to win backing for her Brexit deal after it emerged the government is considering providing a cash injection to areas that voted Leave in the 2016 referendum in an attempt to win Labour MPs’ support.

And then we have the tale of the pro-Brexit MP, who has been criticised after making false statements about Europe and Britain after the Second World War:

Daniel Kawczynski claimed in a tweet that there was "no Marshall Plan for us only for Germany", referring to American payments of more than £12bn approved in 1948 to help rebuild Europe after the end of the war.

"Britain helped to liberate half of Europe. She mortgaged herself up to eye balls in process. No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany. We gave up war reparations in 1990. We put £370 billion into EU since we joined. Watch the way ungrateful EU treats us now. We will remember," he tweeted.

Hundreds of people reacted on the social media site and pointed out that Mr Kawczynski was factually incorrect.

Dr Warren Dockter, an American expert in British history and lecturer in international politics at Aberystwyth University, quoted from The Marshall Plan: Fifty Years After, a seminal academic book on the subject, and said Britain received 26 per cent of Marshall Plan aid, more than any other country.

This is the same MP who, as I reported 10 days ago, formally asked Poland to veto any extension of Article 50, effectively requesting a foreign power to intervene in our domestic affairs and override our sovereign Parliament. You really cannot make this stuff up.

There is much more going on around Brexit of course, and most of these stories play into Theresa May's narrative of demanding MPs vote for her deal to avoid going over a cliff at the end of March. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the feeling that the whole country is on the verge of a massive nervous breakdown.

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