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Sunday, March 31, 2019

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove must account for their role in Vote Leave’s law-breaking

So the Sunday papers have caught up with Vote Leave's admission of guilt for law-breaking during the 2016 referendum campaign, and are starting to ask awkward questions.

The key questions of course involves those members (and past members) of Her Majesty's Government who were prominent in that campaign. What exactly did they know? What level of accountability can be applied to them? And does their association with this wrong-doing make them unfit for high office?

The Observer reports that Conservative leadership candidates Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in particular, are facing growing calls to account for this illegal behaviour by the official Vote Leave Brexit campaign.

This is especially so, given Boris' role in trying to deny all wrong doing. The paper says that when it revealed evidence a year ago that Vote Leave had broken spending rules, Johnson attacked the report on Twitter as “utterly ludicrous” and said it had “won … legally”. Now a Johnson adviser is quoted yesterday as saying that the former foreign secretary would not comment on the end of the appeal. Why so coy, Boris?

Gove has previously said the appeal prevented him from commenting on the ruling, but his office did not respond to a request for a comment now the legal process has ended.

Gove and Johnson played key roles in Vote Leave, Gove as co-convener and Johnson as a figurehead for the official Brexit campaign. A series of other senior government or Tory figures also sat on its committee, including Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab and the former international development secretary Priti Patel.

Labour MP, David Lammy is absolutely correct when he says: "There are profound questions for our democracy about whether senior cabinet ministers are now above the law." It is time for these senior politicians to answer questions about any involvement they may have had in this wrongdoing.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

'Take out the trash day' for Vote Leave

There is a well-known manoeuvre in public relations in which a heavy news day is used to release controversial or damaging stories in the hope that nobody will notice. The most notorious example of the was the email sent by UK Government spin doctor, Jo Moore, as New York's twin towers burned, suggesting that 11 September was a good day to "bury" bad news.

Yesterday, as hundreds of excitable and confrontational protestors surrounded Parliament to demand that the Government should respect the 2016 referendum result, and leave the EU as scheduled at 11pm that evening, and as MPs debated Theresa May's woefully inadequate deal for the third time, the Leave campaign used the opportunity to drop their own bombshell.

As the Guardian reports, Vote Leave dropped its appeal against a £61,000 fine for electoral offences committed during the Brexit referendum. The fine was imposed on the group, which was the lead campaigner for a leave vote, last year after the Electoral Commission concluded that it broke legal spending limits by donating hundreds of thousands of pounds to another leave campaigner, the then 22-year-old fashion student Darren Grimes, founder of BeLeave.

The fact that I could not easily find this story on the main paper's politics pages and had to google it, indicates that the tactic of hiding the organisation's climbdown has largely worked. Nevertheless, this is significant news.

Effectively, Vote Leave have now conceded that they broke the law in campaigning for us to leave the EU. That is no small admission, and adds to the overwhelming sense that the result in June 2016 was illegitimate. I am not sure though whether the protestors outside Parliament yesterday would agree.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Facebook to clamp down on political advertising for Euro elections

It may not apply to us, here in the UK, but the Guardian reports that advertisers will be required to provide verifiable public contact details before they can run political campaigns on Facebook, in the latest attempt by the social network to increase accountability for so-called dark adverts.

The move is part of a raft of changes in the buildup to the European elections in May, when citizens from across the EU will vote in new MEPs:

Facebook’s political advertising restrictions will launch in the EU27 on Friday, following partial rollouts in six countries including the UK, US and India. The restrictions require advertisers on “political” topics – defined differently in each nation – to prove that they live in the country they are targeting, and to store all their adverts in a public database for seven years, along with information about targeting, spend and reach.

The rules require advertisers to disclose who “paid for” the advert, a requirement that has earned Facebook criticism in the past, since the company allowed users to write anything they wanted in the box and did not verify the names. Now, Facebook will continue to allow users to write what they want as the source of the funding, but will require they provide at least a phone number or email address through which interested parties can contact the advertiser. Users who advertise in a personal capacity will be free to not enter that information, but their name will be published instead, as verified by the site.

The requirement is not retroactive, meaning campaigns that have already registered can avoid providing further details. That includes campaigns such as Mainstream Network, which spent an estimated £250,000 on advertising to get Facebook users to urge their MPs to “chuck Chequers” and back a hard Brexit; and Britain’s Future, an obscure group that has spent more than £350,000 pushing for a hard Brexit since October.

The verification requirements will launch in all countries where the company operates its political advertising controls, including the US and UK. Advertisers in the EU27 will be able to register for verification from Friday, with verification becoming mandatory in mid-April, Facebook said. The process can move faster than it did in the UK and the US thanks to the widespread acceptance of national identification cards across the continent, which negates the need for a physical letter to be sent to verify residence. Advertisers will need to be verified separately in each EU country they want to run adverts in.

Some might say that these changes are about time, others that they are too late, the damage has already been done, and the level of accountability for how Facebook behaves is still minimal if it exists at all.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Brexit turns into an Eton-Wykehamist farce

I was tempted this morning just to post a GIF of somebody banging their head on a desk as my final comment on the Brexit farce currently running in the Westminster theatre known as the House of Commons.

Last night MPs voted on eight different solutions to how we might move forward on Brexit. It might well be that as the cliff edge approaches one of these options might squeak through, but if it is anything but May's deal or no deal, the chances of legislation being approved to implement it would be slim.

In chess terms we are now in zugzwang, whereby anything MPs do further weakens the position of the UK. Without exception, they are abrogating their responsibility to find a way through this mess, with all sides unwilling to compromise in the national interest.

And as if to underline how out-of-touch MPs are with the rest of the country, it seems that yesterday's debate boiled down to the products of various public schools throwing insults at each other across the chamber.

As the Independent reports, in a speech which would be met with bafflement on any high street across the country, Jacob Rees-Mogg resorted to mocking fellow Conservative MPs in the House of Commons over the public schools they went to.

This so-called leading Eurosceptic, who attended Eton College, said other MPs who went to school at Winchester College were "characteristically...highly intelligent but fundamentally wrong":

That prompted Mr Boles to interject to say he was "quite capable of distinguishing between my general confidence in the government...and their specific conduct on this particular issue." The former minister said he had repeatedly supported the government by voting for its Brexit deal, which Mr Rees-Mogg has twice voted against.

In response, Mr Rees-Mogg said Mr Boles' argument was "characteristically Wykehamist - highly intelligent but fundamentally wrong". The word "Wykehamist" is used to refer to someone who went to Winchester College.

Turning his guns on Sir Oliver, another alumnus of Eton College, Mr Rees-Mogg added: "I must confess I've sometimes thought my right honourable friend for West Dorset was more a Wykehamist than of my own school."

Is it any wonder that the public look upon this spectacle with disgust. I have been a politician all my life and even I am being turned off politics by these pointless manoeuvrings.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Another Welsh UKIP AM quits

The Western Mail reports that another Welsh Assembly Member has quit UKIP and launched a passionate attack on the party's association with right-wing nationalist and Islam critic Tommy Robinson.

They say that Michelle Brown, a regional AM for north Wales, fired a parting shot by lambasting her party for "handing UKIP’s megaphone to the likes of Tommy Robinson":

She said that instead of fighting for Brexit, the party was "discussing individual politicians’ pet projects such as attacking Islam and abolishing the Welsh Assembly".

She accused the UKIP leadership of trying to "incubate and cultivate a rival fundamentalism". "I still believe in the UKIP that I joined, that spoke for people whose pay was being held down by uncontrolled immigration and whose bills were being sent through the roof because of government and EU policy," she said.

"UKIP won the people of Britain the right to choose whether their destiny lay with the EU or as a self-governing nation. But that isn’t the party I see around me anymore."

As well as attacking UKIP's leader Gerard Batten, she criticised the party's Welsh leader Gareth Bennett AM.

She said: "The group does not function as a group but as a boys’ club – it is not by chance that the group no longer has any female members.

"It does nothing that is in the wider interest of party members or Welsh residents and seems to serve only to further the interests of certain group members."

In the course of just two and a half years, the UKIP group in the Welsh Assembly has shrunk from the original seven to just three. When the history of the 2016 Welsh Assembly election comes to be written, I predict that toothless, ineffective, riven and fractious UKIP will be labelled as the ultimate wasted vote.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

'Grand Wizards' ridculed for their ignorance

There are times in the middle of a crisis when something happens that is beyond parody. Brexit appears to have had more than its fair share of such moments, mostly centred on the key players of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees Mogg. Yesterday, however, we hit peak-parody.

The Mirror reports that the hardcore group of powerful Tories which includes the three non-Ministers amongst that list, are understood to have called themselves Grand Wizards. They appear to have done so without realising that the term was what the leaders of the racist Ku Klux Klan were called during the Reconstruction era between 1865 and 1869.

As ever, Labour MP Jess Phillips summed up the collective outrage at this faux pas:

She said: "This is unbelievable yet so very believable. The group think of this proves exactly why we criticised the fact they were all white men. I'm astonished but no longer am I surprised. These people are disgraceful."

Given the racist undertones of much of the Brexiteer campaigning during the referendum, the self-anointed label is particularly offensive and inappropriate.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Tories in denial on Islamophobia

The Conservative Party would like us to believe that, in stark contrast with Labour and anti-Semitism, they are dealing with their Islamophobia problem, however the reality is very different.

The Guardian reports that more than a dozen Conservative councillors who were suspended over posting Islamophobic or racist content online – with some describing Saudis as “sand peasants” and sharing material comparing Asian people to dogs – have had their membership quietly reinstated:

The chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohammed Amin, called on the party to publish a set of formal disciplinary processes after the Guardian found 15 examples of politicians who posted content that was deemed objectionable.

The findings come amid growing concerns over the Conservative party’s attitude to reports of Islamophobia in a febrile wider climate, with the number of hate crimes against Muslims reported to have risen by 593% in the week after the attack on two New Zealand mosques.

The Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, told the Observer on Sunday that he had been repeatedly subjected to anti-Muslim abuse from the Tory party’s members and supporters.

It seems that the Tories talk a good game when it comes to their disciplinary procedures, but the reality is very different. Just as Labour continues to have a problem with anti-Semitism, the Tories continue to shelter people who have demonstrated that they hold racist and anti-Islamist views.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Brexit dominates, the environment suffers

With the Prime Minister apparently facing a cabinet coup as she struggles to deliver the impossible promises of the 2016 referendum, with up to two million people crowding the streets of London to deliver a final say, and with nearly five million people now having signed the petition calling for Article 50 to be revoked, it is little wonder that the Government has little time to do anything else.

However, the focus on Brexit has meant that other, important priorities are being neglected, not least the environment. I am sure that those thousands of school pupils who went on strike only a few days ago, to demand a greater focus on climate change, will be very upset indeed to read in yesterday's Guardian that the UK is likely to miss almost all the 2020 nature targets it set itself a decade ago.

The paper says that we are failing to protect threatened species; end the degradation of land; reduce agricultural pollution; and increase funding for green schemes. In addition, the UK is not ending unsustainable fishing; stopping the arrival of invasive alien species; nor raising public awareness of the importance of biodiversity.

The targets were set in 2010 by the global Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the report from the joint nature conservation committee (JNCC) found insufficient progress was being made on 14 of the 19 targets.

A separate report, published in 2016, found that the UK is “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”, with continuing declines in species such as skylarks, hedgehogs, many insects including butterflies and corn marigolds:

“The JNCC report says nature in the UK is pretty bad, declining and not recovering, and that is in the context of an awful lot of rhetoric [from ministers] about being a world leader on the environment,” said Kate Jennings, the head of site conservation policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

“We are going to fail to meet the vast majority of our international commitments,” she said. “Some of the things presented as positive are where places are getting worse more slowly – if that’s the best achievement we’ve got, it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs.”

The failure to meet Convention on Biological Diversity targets is pretty damning:

A key CBD target is to improve the conservation status of threatened species but the report says “there have been widespread and significant ongoing declines across many species”, such as farmland birds and pollinating insects.

Another of the 2020 targets is to cut the rate of loss and degradation of natural habitats to “close to zero”. While the report says some places have improved, there have been “ongoing losses of natural and semi-natural habitat, for example through neglect or development”.

The target to cut fertiliser and other pollution to levels that do not harm biodiversity is being missed, the report says, with little reduction in sensitive habitats since 2010 and with 65% of inland and coastal waters remaining below target levels.

Only about half of fish stocks are sustainably caught, the report says, meaning the target to end overfishing will be missed. The goal to prevent new invasive species entering the UK and harming wildlife, as the grey squirrel has, is also being missed. Despite strong

action, the report says, the number of invasive species has increased in fresh and marine waters. The CBD targets also require that funding to support biodiversity should “increase substantially” but the report found a fall in government spend on biodiversity. Another goal is to eliminate subsidies that harm nature and increase those that boost it. But the report says: “The UK recognises some ongoing declines of woodland, farmland and marine biodiversity and some recent reductions in areas under agri-environment schemes.”

The CBD targets also require the UK government to make the public aware of the value of biodiversity but the JNCC found “more than half of the UK public report no awareness of the threats to biodiversity … and there has been no significant increase since 2009”.

Brexit may well be in crisis, but the real existential threat to the UK lies in the neglect of our environment, It is time that changed.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The week 'breaking news' could not keep up

As I start writing this post we are just 1,500 signatures short of four million on a petition to Parliament, asking MPs to revoke Article 50. Already, Brexiteers are questioning its legitimacy, but this is not some fly-by-night, click-bait site with dodgy verification processes, this is the House of Commons website, complete with proper authentication procedures.

The route to revocation still lies in a third referendum in my view (the first was in 1975), but nobody should ignore the grassroots feeling that has driven so many people, possibly a record number, to go online and put their name to this request that Parliament rethinks their approach.

The numbers are growing so quickly that news outlets cannot keep up. This BBC article from yesterday, for example, has the number of signatories at three million. Other news outlets are lagging even further behind.

Today, we are expecting the biggest demonstration in central London since the 1980s. The leader of the opposition will not be there. He is content to leave the outcome of this chaotic process to Theresa May and her hard line Brexiteers, whilst espousing a fantasy solution that would never pass the House of Commons, never mind the EU.

Both the leaders of the two main parties have now come out publicly for us to leave the EU, with all the disastrous consequences that entails. It is up to the people to make them change their mind, and we are stepping up.

As I conclude this post signatures on the petition have now passed four million. What happens when more people have signed it than voted for us to leave in the first place? Is that even possible?

Friday, March 22, 2019

Tory vultures circle, as UK heads for the cliff edge

In my day, anybody who aspired to leadership would need to demonstrate some gravitas, an understanding of the issues, an ability to put the best interests of the nation first, and a modicum of dignity under pressure.

And whilst a certain ruthlessness has always been a requirement, for appearances sake at least, a candidate would at least attempt to show some grace towards their opponents and the person they seek to replace, so as not to alienate their electorate.

I am not sure at what point, this job description was rewritten to turn every leadership contest into the political equivalent of a pack of wolves devouring a live sheep, but the Tory Party is at that point, and matters are starting to degenerate into the sort of bloody free-for-all that makes the Game of Thrones' Battle of the Bastards look like a Victorian tea party.

The fact is that, as the UK teeters on the edge of disaster, with a no-deal Brexit looking more and more inevitable everyday, with Theresa May standing helpless on the side lines, some of the most senior members of her party, almost all of whom are responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place, and whose subsequent ineffectiveness as Ministers compounded the problem, appear to have abandoned all pretence at acting in the national interest and are manoeuvring to succeed her instead.

This self-interested treachery is evident in the latest incarnation of the register of interests. As the Guardian reports, Boris Johnson has received another £15,000 from the pro-Brexit digger maker JCB. This is one in a mass of donations to potential Conservative leadership contenders with the expectation that Theresa May’s time in office is coming to an end:

The former foreign secretary, a likely standard bearer for pro-Brexit Tories, received £31,000 in donations in the past month, the register of MPs’ interests shows, and has been given almost £140,000 in money or other support since late last year.

Others to receive new donations in recent weeks include Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary who has made no secret of his leadership ambitions. He has been given more than £50,000 in cash and other donations this month alone.

In January, JCB – owned by Anthony Bamford, a Conservative peer and donor – gave Johnson £10,000 three days before he made a speech at the company’s Staffordshire headquarters, during which he repeatedly praised it.

As well as the new £15,000 from JCB, given in mid-February, Johnson accepted £16,000 from Johan Christofferson, who co-owns a New York-based investment business. He gave another £20,000 in January.

This is not all:

Raab, who already has a semi-official leadership campaign running under the slogan Ready for Raab, was given a donation worth more than £44,000 to pay for a staff member for six months, from the London-based bank Arbuthnot. He received £10,000 from another, private donor.

Other prominent Conservatives to receive donations include Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, who accepted £7,500 from a private equity executive, and Michael Gove, the environment secretary, who received £3,000 from a firm of management consultants.

The set of MPs’ interests also show the Conservatives have accepted more money from the wife of one of Vladimir Putin’s former ministers, who has been a regular and generous recent donor to the party.

Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband, Vladimir, is a former Russian deputy finance minister, donated £9,500 in cash and other offerings to the Conservative MP and party chair, Brandon Lewis, in February and March. She has given more than £600,000 to the Tories in recent years.

While the UK teeters on the brink, while voters face bigger bills, job losses, and a near bankrupt country hawking a begging bowl around the world's super-powers in the hope of some sort of trade deal, some of our leading politicians are more focussed on succeeding Theresa May rather than getting us out of this mess.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Trouble for Farage's pro-Brexit party

The Guardian reports that Nigel Farage's latest berth, a pro-Brexit party. allegedly set up because of the rightward drift of UKIP, has run into similar problems of its own.

The paper says that Catherine Blaiklock, the leader of the Brexit party, resigned on Wednesday after she was asked about repeatedly retweeting posts from far-right figures as well as sending her own messages. They add that among the messages she shared was one by Mark Collett, a former British National party (BNP) activist, referring to “white genocide”:

The term is often used in extreme rightwing and racist online activism of the sort seen as having inspired the man suspected of shooting dead 50 people last week at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

One of her own messages read: “Islam = submission – mostly to raping men it seems.”

As the paper says this news will call Farage’s judgement into question after he left UKIP because of its “fixation” on Muslims and its alliance with far-right activist Tommy Robinson:

Among other tweets sent by Blaiklock was one that referred to Islam as “a non-democracy ideology that is incompatible with liberal democracy”. Another said of Islam that it was “perfectly rational to be phobic about people who want to kill you”.

Another, from December 2017, recounted being at a north London tube station, and read: “8 people waiting for lift, 5 Muslim girls, 1 black, 1 other Asian Chinese, 1 white. Immediately outside saw a drug deal take place. Looked like Turkey.”

She also retweeted a message by the US radio show host and former state congressman Joe Walsh saying: “Haiti is a shithole and it’s run by blacks.”

Blaiklock was formerly Ukip’s economics spokeswoman. She left the party late last year, shortly after Farage, who is listed on the Brexit party website as “supporting” it, and has promised to stand if new European elections are held in May.

She shared 45 Twitter posts by Collett, who formerly headed the youth wing of the BNP, one as recently as January this year. One retweet, from 2018, shows a photo of a multiracial primary school class with the message: “This is a British school. This is white genocide.”

Another post by Collett retweeted by Baiklock claims that multiculturalism amounts to “the replacement of the indigenous European people”.

As well as Collett and Robinson, Blaiklock also retweeted dozens of posts by the far-right agitators Peter Sweden and Stefan Molyneux, and Paul Joseph Watson from the US conspiracy theory website Infowars. Her own tweets about Islam also included: “Islam = submission, slavery. Western thought = critical thinking freedom.” Another, sent 10 days later, read: “I want my country back. I want seaside donkeys on the beach and little village churches, not acid attacks, mobs and mosques.”

As gratifying as it is that Blaiklock has fallen on her sword, the investigation by Hope Not Hate, which exposed these tweets, has highlighted another worrying trend, namely the way supposedly legitimate parties are being infiltrated by the right wing. This sort of activity is worrying and needs to be exposed.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

More wrong doing by Vote Leave

I am beginning to feel left out. I didn't receive any of the controversial emails, texts or Facebook adverts sent out by Vote Leave. Who told them that I was a Remainer? Am I to believe that they read this blog?

Despite that apparently 196,154 people did receive texts from Vote Leave during the referendum campaign. The only problem is that the recipients didn't give their consent to being contacted in this way.

The Independent reports that official Brexit campaign has now been fined £40,000 by the UK’s privacy watchdog for sending these unsolicited text messages. The campaign group, which was backed by Tory big-hitters Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, was unable to provide evidence to the ICO that the recipients had given their consent to receive the messages – as required by electronic marketing law.

As the paper says, Vote Leave has already been fined and reported to the police by the election watchdogs after it was found to have breached strict spending rules during the campaign. The Electoral Commission slapped a £61,000 fine on the campaign after it uncovered “significant evidence” of joint working between Vote Leave and a youth group known as BeLeave, which meant the campaign had exceeded its spending limit.

As the ICO director of investigations Steve Eckersley says: “Spam texts are a real nuisance for millions of people and we will take action against organisations who disregard the law. Direct marketing is not just about selling products and services, it’s also about promoting an organisation’s aims and ideals. Political campaigns and parties, like any other organisations, have to comply with the law.”

And so say all of us,

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Bercow does his job and the Tories go into meltdown

Throughout the Brexit process there has been a tendency by those seeking to leave the EU to blame the messenger when things do not go their way. Thus, the reaction to John Bercow's reassertion of basic Parliamentary procedure is entirely predictable.

As the Guardian reports, the Speaker's ruling has allegedly sparked a constitutional crisis. Why that is so is difficult to ascertain, as this whole scenario was entirely predictable.

The paper says that with 11 days to go until Britain is due to leave the EU, May has been forced to pull her plans for another meaningful vote because John Bercow said she could not ask MPs to pass the same deal, after they rejected it twice by huge margins:

Quoting from the guide to parliamentary procedure, Erskine May, Bercow said the question “may not be brought forward again during the same session” and that it was a “strong and longstanding convention” dating back to 1604. It must be “not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance”, he said, suggesting there must be a change in what the EU is offering.

Bercow’s surprise intervention means May is likely to have to go to Thursday’s Brussels summit with a request for a long extension to article 50, which could mean the UK has to spend more than £100m on participating in European parliament elections.

During the delay, parliament would have to make a decision on how to break the deadlock, potentially with a second referendum, an election or a cross-party proposal for a softer Brexit. Alternatively, government sources suggested May could negotiate a lengthy extension with the EU, with a “get-out clause” enabling it to be cut short if her Brexit deal is passed by parliament before the European parliamentary elections.

Whatever some newspapers and Tory MPs may say, it is Theresa May who has painted herself into a corner here, all Bercow has done is to publicly point out her dilemma. The upshot is that the UK itself is in jeopardy of crashing over the no-deal cliff.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Corbyn could vote leave in new referendum

If there was any doubt where the Labour leader's sympathies lie on Brexit, he dispelled them this morning in an interview on Sky News when he told Sophy Ridge on Sunday that he could vote to leave the EU if there is another Brexit referendum.

The Independent reports that Corbyn told the interviewer that how he voted in any future referendum giving the British public a Final Say on Brexit would depend on the withdrawal deal which is on offer at the time.

The paper adds that the Labour leader gave a heavily caveated answer when asked if he was “enthusiastic” about the idea of a new referendum, and said that his party might back an amendment calling for one depending on its wording:

Asked if he would vote Remain in a new referendum, Mr Corbyn told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “It depends what the choice is in front of us. If we’ve got a good deal in which we can have a dynamic relationship with Europe ... then that might be a good way forward that unites the country.

“It depends what the relationship is that we’ve agreed in the future.”

Mr Corbyn’s front bench is in talks with Labour backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson about potentially backing an amendment which would see a referendum called on a deal that is approved by parliament.

He explained that the amendment is being written and that he would need to see the exact wording before ordering whips to shepherd MPs into backing it. 

In short, the Labour leader is continuing to sit on the fence, whilst giving tacit support to the Tories in their desire to leave the EU. It is now clear that:
  1. We cannot rely on Labour to give us a public vote on the final deal, and if they do they may seek to remove the remain option from the ballot paper.
  2. Corbyn sympathies are clearly with those wishing to leave the EU, and if there was a further plebiscite with remain as an option, we could not rely on him to support any campaign to stay within the EU
  3. The Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party committed to giving people a say on whether we accept May's flawed deal or stay in the EU, and who are committed to campaigning for the remain option.
Corbyn and Labour have failed as an opposition, and they have failed the UK by clinging to unachievable and self-interested objectives, whilst abandoning our long term interests as a member of the wider European Community.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

More failing by Grayling

Just when you think that Chris Grayling could not dig himself into a deeper hole it transpires that the botched contracts he put in place to help the country ferry in vital goods in the case of a no-deal Brexit could cost almost £30m more if the UK’s departure from the EU is delayed.

The Independent reports say that the deals that were set up to take account of a potential no-deal exit on 29 March could see firms receive compensation for expenses incurred and may also cost more if the departure date alters, creating extra work:

The controversial ferry process put in place by the Department for Transport had already seen a row over the collapse of one contract with Seaborne Freight, which had no ferries, and a £33m out-of-court settlement with Eurotunnel.

On Saturday, The Financial Times reported the cost of a delay to Brexit could amount to a further £28m in relation to the contracts.

Brittany Ferries, which has contracts worth £46.6m under the deal, said the terms “included fair and proportionate compensation in a deal scenario, taking account of the significant preparatory work and concomitant costs incurred by Brittany Ferries”.

It said the firm had already “incurred a series of direct costs and resource commitments” and “the new schedule cannot now be changed, even as an extension to Article 50 seems likely”.

Additional staff had been employed and more than 20,000 existing bookings had been changed, the firm noted.

Thank goodness Grayling is not also negotiating with the European Union.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Labour and Tory splits stand starkly exposed on Brexit

Amidst the chaos of this week in Parliament, the one thing that stands out is how deeply and irrevocably split both Labour and the Tories are over Brexit, and indeed other issues emanating from it.

Whether it is the farcical sight of eight cabinet members refusing to back Theresa May's plan to delay Brexit by three months, or Labour ordering MPs to sit on their hands rather than vote for a measure which is allegedly their own policy, only to see 24 MPs, including shadow ministers, defy that whip, the two major parties are as chaotic as Brexit itself.

The Independent reports that amongst those Tory MPs who failed to support the Prime Minister, was Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay, who was joined by 187 other Conservative MPs and frontbenchers in voting against her approach. This was despite the fact that minutes before, Barclay had been arguing for the policy change at the despatch box.

None of the ministers opposing Ms May’s ultimately successful move to delay Brexit will be sacked, because she allowed a “free vote” on the issue in the face of a mass rebellion, which in itself is a sign of just how weak she is as a leader. The rebellion comes on the back of a vote the night before in which remainer cabinet ministers refused to support the government on a motion ruling out a no-deal Brexit.

Meanwhile, Labour are not spared this disarray. As the Guardian reports, they ordered their MPs to abstain on a second referendum amendment only to see 24 MPs defy the whip to support it.  It is apparently Labour Party policy to support another plebiscite, though you would not know it by listening to the pronouncements and watching the actions of the Labour leadership.

There are of course arguments about the timing of the vote on another referendum, but the optics tell us all we need to know about Labour's tacit support for us leaving the EU and their inability to offer and effective opposition to this government.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

As the UK teeters on the brink, Farage rakes in the cash

It is still pantomime season in the House of Commons, with one EU leader suggesting that MPs were now sitting aboard the Titanic voting in favour of the iceberg getting out of the way. Meanwhile, one of the chief architects f Brexit, Nigel Farage, who only a few years ago told the Daily Mail that he was “53, separated and skint”, adding: “There’s no money in politics” is now raking in the cash.

As the Guardian reports, Farage added nearly £400,000 last year to the coffers of a company that has acted as a repository for the former UKIP leader’s earnings from media appearances and the lecture circuit.

The paper says that despite claiming in 2017 that he was “skint”, filings to Companies House suggest the picture may have changed in the period since Farage stepped down as leader:

Thorn in the Side Ltd, of which Farage is the sole director, had assets of £548,573 for the year to May 2018 – a substantial jump from assets of just over £157,000 recorded for the previous year.

The disclosure comes as Farage was chided on Wednesday by the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, while the parliament debated the current Brexit turmoil.

Verhofstadt claimed Farage wanted an extension to article 50 in order to keep Britain in the EU, so he can continue to have his MEP’s salary and transfer it into an offshore company.

Farage laughed and nodded as the former Belgian prime minister made the claims about his pay and accused Farage of wanting to stay in the EU to continue a project of “destroying it from within”.

The former Ukip leader later told the Guardian: “Mr Verhofstadt is just plain wrong. I have never been the beneficiary of any offshore company.”

As well as having had a show on LBC radio, Farage has been a regular political commentator on international television channels since stepping down as Ukip leader in 2016. He was hired the following year as a commentator for the US television network Fox News.

Farage, who has criticised others for avoiding tax, has come under fire in the past for using Thorn in the Side Ltd to reduce the tax bill on his media appearances.

It seems that there is money in politics after all.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Brexit - a short analogy as told to the Vogons

For those who have read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, seen the TV series or listened to the radio programmes, the last few days must seem very familiar.

After having subjected us all to their bad poetry on sovereignty, the ERG (Vogons) are about to cast the UK (Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent) out of an airlock into the vacuum of space. The only hope for our heroes is a two-headed alien, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is titular head of the European Union, his side-kick Trillian, a paranoid android called Marvin, who presides over the elected Parliament and their improbability drive.

It is the improbability of where we currently stand in the Article 50 process that irks the most. There will be no miraculous space ship to drag us back from the vacuum of space before our two minutes are up and we suffocate due to lack of oxygen.

Instead we have just over two weeks for a fractured and uncooperative Parliament to find a way forward, take it to the EU, get the agreement of 27 different countries and then revisit all the issues. And repeat.

In my view we are at the end of the road. There are only three possible solutions to the mess that we are in:
  1. Leave on 29th March without a deal and suffer the severe economic consequences both on our economy and our personal finances and living standards, including significant job losses;
  2. Hold a referendum giving people a clear choice between Theresa May's deal and remaining in the EU; or
  3. Pass legislation in Parliament rescinding Article 50 and carry on as normal.
It is my view that we will not get a significant extension of Article 50 through the EU for anything else. They will not tolerate us kicking the can down the road any longer. They may allow an extension for a General Election but, really, that is not going to significantly change the dynamics in Parliament on the deal the EU are prepared to offer us.

My problem with the three options is that I do not believe that there is a majority in Parliament for any of them. The cold vacuum of space awaits us but the improbability drive is not available.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

When the marketing of Wales goes wrong

The BBC reports on a tweet by Trade and Invest Wales, a Welsh Government marketing initiative, which sought to attract foreign investment to Wales by saying wages are lower than in other parts of the UK. The body told potential investors that Wales' workforce often has "up to 30% lower salary costs".

The problem with this approach is manifest. Not only are we effectively seeking to sell the country to investors on the basis that we are poorer than everybody else, and that as a result wage rates are lower, but we are also seeking to compete with other low wage economies, who are less developed and can undercut us easily in this regard.

We should be building up the skills of our workforce so that they can command premium wages, not trying to sell Wales as an under-developed country. This approach is insulting and needs to be stamped out.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Following the money

As the Brexit saga continues unresolved and apparently unsolvable, people's minds are starting to think through the consequences of the chaos and incompetence that this government has brought to their project.

We have already seen the way that the car manufacturing industry is being devastated by the uncertainty around our leaving the EU, and even more damage to our economy is being posed by the financial sector. The Telegraph reports that banks, asset managers and insurers have already moved nearly £1 trillion of assets out of the UK and to other European countries ahead of Brexit, with more likely to be shifted in coming months, according to new research.

They say that New Financial, a think tank, has identified more than 275 firms that have moved or are moving some of their business, staff, assets or legal entities from the UK to the EU in preparation for Brexit. Of the assets that have already been shifted, around £800bn have been moved by banks and investment banks; £65bn in funds have been relocated by asset managers; and £65bn in assets have been shifted by insurance companies.

And these figures only account for those companies that have been open about the moving of assets. A lot more money may well have been moved abroad under the radar. The paper adds that Dublin is by far the biggest beneficiary on the moves, with 100 firms relocating to the Irish capital, followed by Luxembourg with 60, Paris with 41, Frankfurt with 40 and Amsterdam with 32. More than 40 firms are moving staff or business to more than one EU financial centre:

New Financial said that the political uncertainty since the referendum has forced firms to assume the worst-case scenario of a “no deal” Brexit with no transition period, and plan accordingly. Outside of the single market, UK-based banks will not be allowed to provide some of their services to EU-based clients.

As yet, no agreement has been reached on the UK’s access to the EU market. It is understood that EU regulators favour granting “equivalence” - a process by which the European Commission decides whether a third country’s regulatory regime is equivalent to its own. However, the Chancellor Philip Hammond has said that this is not adequate for the City’s needs: “The EU regime is unilateral and access can be withdrawn with little-to-no notice.”

New Financial believes that more assets will move over time. “This is phase one,” says Mr Wright. “The European authorities have, up to this point, made things as easy as possible for the companies looking to set up operations in the EU. But over time it is inevitable that they will require financial institutions to staff-up their EU hubs. And that will mean more business, more assets and more jobs moving from the UK.”

Deal or no deal, this trend looks like it could cripple the UK economy in the short to medium term.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Time to move the venue of the 2022 World Cup

As if there was not already enough controversy over FIFA's decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the latest Sunday Times revelations about the bidding process must surely be the final nail in the coffin for that venue.

The paper reveals leaked documents showing that the state of Qatar secretly offered $400m to FIFA just 21 days before world football’s governing body controversially decided that the 2022 World Cup would be held in the tiny desert country:

The files, seen by The Sunday Times, show that executives from the Qatari state-run broadcaster Al Jazeera signed a television contract making the huge offer as the bidding campaigns to host the World Cup were reaching a climax.

The contract included an unprecedented success fee of $100m that would be paid into a designated FIFA account only if Qatar was successful in the World Cup ballot in 2010.

It represented a huge conflict of interest for FIFA and a breach of its own rules as Al Jazeera was owned and controlled by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who was the driving force behind the bid.

The Sunday Times has also seen a copy of a second secret television rights contract for a further $480m that was offered by Qatar three years later — shortly before FIFA cut short its long-running investigation into corruption in the bidding process and suppressed its findings. This contract is now part of a bribery inquiry by Swiss police.

It means that Fifa was directly offered almost $1bn by the Qatari state at crucial times in its efforts to host and retain the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

Experts say it would be difficult to justify the amount paid by the Qatari broadcaster for the television rights deals on purely commercial terms. It is thought to be five times the sum previously paid for such deals in the region.

The paper concludes that disclosures add to the mounting evidence that Qatar effectively bought the right to host the world’s biggest sporting competition, which will be held in Doha in three years’ time.

They add that the $400m offer ahead of the vote was a clear breach of FIFA’s own anti-bribery rules, which forbid entities with links to the bid from making financial offers to the sports body in connection with the bidding process.

It is difficult to disagree with their conclusion. Surely it is time for FIFA to accept the bidding process was flawed and move the 2022 World Cup to a different country.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Tory cabinet members race to the bottom

Is there a competition amongst Tory Cabinet Ministers to see who can make the biggest gaffe and still remain sitting at the cabinet table? Is first prize tea at the Ritz? Because if it is, Chris Grayling is still in pole position, but Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley is running him close.

I only ask because if that is not the case then we are doomed, doomed I tell you, to obscurity and disaster as a country. Never in the history of the United Kingdom has our future been entrusted to such a bunch of nincompoops at such a crucial turning point in our relations with the outside world.

Karen Bradley, like Grayling, has form. Do you remember her admission last September, that before becoming Northern Ireland secretary she was profoundly ignorant of the country’s political divisions and “slightly scared” of the place?

She told the House Magazine she was unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and that unionists did not vote for nationalists – the most elementary fact about Northern Ireland politics. Now she has compounded that error with he biggest gaffe so far.

As the Independent reports, Bradley provoked fury when she claimed fewer than 10 per cent of deaths during the conflict were committed by the military and police, who were only "fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way":

In response to a question from the DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly, Ms Bradley told the Commons: "Over 90 per cent of the killings during the Troubles were at the hands of terrorists, every single one of those was a crime. The fewer than 10 per cent that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes."

She has now sought to walk back those remarks, but the damage has been done:

John Teggart, whose father Danny was shot 14 times at Ballymurphy, said she should “do the dignified and appropriate thing” and resign immediately.

“Ballymurphy massacre families have been requesting a meeting with the secretary of state since she took up her position of secretary of state for Northern Ireland,” he said.

“Karen Bradley hasn’t even replied to these requests.”

He added: “We will not meet her, and have one request for Mrs Bradley – and that is for her to resign immediately.”

Theresa May says she has full confidence in her Northern Ireland Secretary. As with a lot of things May has confidence in, she may well be alone in that belief.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Why are the Tories ambivalent towards tax havens?

One of the side effects of austerity is that it does concentrate the mind as to alternative sources of income. Thus, since the 2010, there has been a lot of noise about the extra revenue that could be raised from clamping down on tax avoidance, non-Doms and multi-national companies who base their business in low tax countries.

The reason why so little has been done to pursue this agenda since that election is open to speculation. It may be that it is just too difficult, it may need international agreements to be negotiated and agreed or it could just be that successive chancellors do not want to upset key players in the country's economy.

This article in today's Times suggests yet another reason, that the ruling Tory Party do not want to upset some of their biggest donors.

The paper says that more than £1 million was raised by the Tories from Britons based in tax havens and their UK companies before the 2017 general election. They add that this money was accepted even though a law was passed in 2009 that was meant to clamp down on donations from offshore.

The bill banned large personal donations from anyone not resident or domiciled in the UK for tax purposes but coincidentally, successive governments have failed to enact it with a commencement order.

Section 10 of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 would have banned donations of more than £7,500 from anyone not resident in the UK for tax purposes, as well as those not domiciled in the UK. “Non-dom” is a separate status that applies to people who live in Britain but view another country as their permanent home. A person’s domicile is usually determined by their father’s domicile but can be changed.:

At least £500,000 of the money raised by the Tories before the 2017 election was from Lord Ashcroft, who is based in Belize. MPs have also criticised the Conservatives for accepting donations before the election from UK companies whose owners live in tax havens, a practice that was not covered by the law.

Yesterday The Times revealed that a third of British billionaires had moved to tax havens. As the second part of the tax haven rich list is published today, it can be disclosed that:

• Andrea Leadsom’s Jersey-based brother-in-law, Peter de Putron, owns a UK company that gave more than £100,000 to the Tories before the 2017 general election.

• UK companies owned by Mr De Putron and the financiers Jim Mellon and Harvey Boulter donated to groups linked to Brexit while they were living in tax havens.

• The Ukip donor Paul Sykes, who gave the party more than £2.8 million while living in the UK, has moved to the Channel Islands.

The Times identified £5.5 million in political donations from people living in tax havens and their UK companies since July 2009, including £1,053,400 raised by the Conservatives before the 2017 election.

People who are not on the UK electoral roll are banned from donating to a political party but it is possible to register as an overseas voter for up to 15 years after leaving Britain.

In addition to the failure to commence the clause forbidding overseas donations, ministers were criticised on Monday for pulling a bill that would have compelled Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man to publish registers of beneficial ownership.

All of these donations are legal and properly declared but the intention of the 2009 law was that they should be stamped out. Why has the government not enacted that law? We can only speculate.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Scientists warn badger cull may actually make TB spread worse

The Independent finally catches up with the rest of us reporting that a study has found culling badgers may help to spread TB further because it disrupts local populations and drives them into previously uninfected areas.

The study they are referring to focused on a cull conducted between 1998 and 2005 to protect British cattle from TB. It was one of the largest of its kind ever conducted, resulting in the death of 11,000 badgers.

While some locations saw infections drop, the trial led to the disease spreading further into previously uninfected cattle and badger populations. It is a study that has been much ignored by a government more concerned with appeasing farmers than actually taking effective action to eradicate bovine TB.

I actually reported on this study in October 2009 The Independent Scientific Group's research was published in international, peer-reviewed journals. The authors analysed in detail, every possible culling option before reaching their conclusion. The research was published here.

The paper adds that despite the identified shortcomings, the government has proceeded with a new round of culling to bring the disease under control, leading to a further 30,000 badgers being killed.

The solution advocated by the experts may be a lot more difficult than randomly shooting badgers, but it has the merits of at least being effective. They want to see the introduction of non-lethal methods like badger vaccinations and improved biosecurity measures by farmers:

Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, said the researchers were right to note the so-clled “perturbation effect” by which animal movement helps spread disease.

“Despite the huge cost and cruelty involved, no reliable scientific evidence has been published to prove that badger culling is lowering bovine TB in or around the 31 cull zones across England,” he said.

Surely we are overdue for a fresh approach by Ministers.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia poison our politics

What is wrong with the two largest parties? Labour are still struggling with what appears to be institutional anti-Semitism within their ranks, fanned by the inability of their leadership to take the necessary decisive action to stamp it out. At the same time, the Tories continue to wrestle with Islamophobia amongst their membership.

Today's Guardian reports that the Conservative party has suspended 14 members for allegedly making Islamophobic comments after a string of abusive posts were uncovered on social media. They say that the suspensions come at a time of growing scrutiny of the Conservative party’s record on Islamophobia.

The former Tory chairman Sayeeda Warsi has again called for an internal inquiry and suggested the most senior figures in the party, including Theresa May, need to take the problem more seriously:

The messages included one from an individual who wrote that they would like to “turf all Muslims out of public office”. Another said they wanted to “get rid of all mosques”. Many comments were found on a Facebook group supporting Jacob Rees-Mogg.

A third said they could not vote for Sajid Javid, the home secretary, in any forthcoming leadership race because that would amount to a vote for “Islam to lead this country”.

A post in the Facebook group supporting Rees-Mogg, which showed a map of all mosques in Britain, provoked several hostile responses, including: “This is not a Muslim country” and “We’re just letting the takeover happen”.

Meanwhile, Labour's troubles over anti-Semitism continue with the 2,000 strong Jewish Labour Movement, which has been affiliated to Labour since 1920, holding meetings in Manchester and London today, to decide whether to sever ties with the party over its handling of anti-Jewish racism.

Jeremy Corbyn, who has been slow to react to complaints of anti-Semitism in the past, obviously understands that the optics of such a decision are very bad for the Labour Party. He has written to the JLM chair, Ivor Caplin, urging the group to stay, saying it was "integral to the Labour family".

That is no longer the view of one member of the Labour Party who has published his reasons for quitting. Jeremy Horton wrote about Corbyn: 'Antisemitism has been normalised in Labour and in my opinion your behaviour over a number of years has legitimised it. Your friendships with conspiracy pedlars, Holocaust-deniers and revisionists as well as supporters of anti-Semitic terror groups like Hezbollah gives credibility to their ideas and philosophies.' The full letter can be read here.

It is tragic that whilst the future of our country remains in doubt because of a disastrous decision to leave the EU, both main parties are embroiled in controversies about racism within their ranks. It is little wonder that many people think politics (and our democracy) is broken.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Is this the most inept political bribe ever?

Whatever sobriquet is finally awarded to Theresa May's Government, the word competent is not likely to be included. Not only has she made a pigs ear of the whole Brexit process, but she has lost control of her own Parliamentary Party and is widely considered to be in power but not able to exercise it.

The latest attempt at effectively buying votes for her Brexit deal sums up her approach. As the Independent reports, she has earmarked £1.6 billion over six years to help deprived towns, many of which will have voted to leave the EU.

Her government says the money would be used to create jobs, train local people and boost investment, but critics say it is an attempt to convince Labour MPs in Leave-voting areas to back May’s withdrawal agreement, and was not enough to offset the impact of Brexit.

Indeed, the Government has not even thought through whether the money would attract a Barnett consequential when they announced it, meaning that leave-voting Wales and stay-voting Scotland still do not know if they will benefit from the money, nor whether their respective Parliaments will have the ability to determine how it is to be distributed.

By my calculation, the fund will be worth about £13 million a year to Wales, if they were to get a Barnett share. That is roughly half the amount that Swansea Council alone had to cut from their budget for next year. I am sure that similar calculations are being made in England.

It will also be the case, that in the Objective One, Two and Three areas, in which many of the targeted towns are situated, the sums available in European aid is likely to dwarf the amounts offered in this bribe.

And as if to add to May's problems, she cannot actually tie the receipt of these funds to how the benefiting MPs vote. An MP could receive a cash boost for her or his town, and then happily walk through the lobby against May's deal.

As a bribe the £1.6 billion is completely ineffective. As aid for poorer areas of the country it is entirely inadequate. Back to the drawing board then, Theresa.

Monday, March 04, 2019

UKIP membership swings to the right

Today's front page headline by the Guardian must be one of the most unexpected of all time. Faced with a leader who describes Islam as “a death cult” and who has appointed the anti-Muslim activist Tommy Robinson as an adviser moderate members of UKIP have abandoned the party to replaced by right wingers who are more sympathetic to this world-outlook.

The paper's sources say that many of the 8,000 or so newcomers who have joined in recent months appear to be younger and more radical, attracted both by Robinson and the party’s links to controversial YouTube agitators. Members of UKIP’s youth wing have posted antisemitic and other extremist messages online, and there has been a rise in the popularity of news websites pushing the party’s message.

The dire warning by analysts is that with UKIP’s poll numbers rising amid the continued deadlock over Brexit, there is a danger the party could soon be reinvented as a street movement, becoming the first significant far-right force in UK politics since the demise of the British National party:

According to party insiders, Batten appointed Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, without consulting colleagues. They say he is increasingly adopting what one called a “bunker mentality” in which he relies heavily on Robinson, the founder of the English Defence League, and other confidants from the far right.

The Guardian has seen antisemitic messages posted on an unofficial Ukip youth web group, including one saying that life under Hitler was “better than anywhere else on earth”, and another describing Jews as “hook-nosed masters” who control the media. The member involved has since been expelled.

And while Ukip has publicly sought to reject links to the yellow-vest protesters who have harassed politicians and journalists outside parliament and have links to far-right and anti-Islam views, their main Facebook page is run by Martin Costello, the chair of Ukip’s Wiltshire branch and a former parliamentary candidate.

Costello told the Guardian he was helping to coordinate the movement, describing himself as a “modern-day Wat Tyler”.

Since Batten took over as Ukip leader last year, he has proposed new policies including extra checks for immigrants from Islamic countries and Muslim-only prisons, while his families spokesman has said Muslims gangs are responsible for “a holocaust of our children”.

Such changes, together with the appointment of Robinson, prompted a series of MEPs to quit the party, among them the former leader Nigel Farage, who has since launched a new Brexit-based party.

Of the 24 Ukip MEPs elected when the party topped the polls in the 2014 European elections, only seven remain.

AS far as Wales is concerned, the remaining members of the UKIP Assembly group need to be asking themselves whether they belong in a party that has swung so far to the right, or not? I shall watch with interest.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Tone-deaf MPs avoid climate change debate

After spending months debating and agonising over Brexit, you would think that MPs might want a bit of relief and a change of subject.

A number took the opportunity of course to condemn the schoolchildren's strike over climate change, failing to notice that the implications of this global phenomenon, even in the short term, could well nullify all their rhetoric about borders, trade and international relationships.

However, when it was the turn of the 'grown-ups' to take the stage and talk about the future of our planet, very few actually showed up. Perhaps we could do a swop and put the schoolchildren in Parliament, whilst sending MPs  back to the classroom.

The Independent reports that only a handful of Conservative MPs attended the first climate change debate in two years in the Commons, in the week that saw the UK experience its two hottest ever winter days.

They add that as the debate on the UK's progress towards a zero carbon emissions future began on Thursday afternoon, a number of MPs from both sides of the aisle were seen leaving the chamber:

Layla Moran, a Liberal Democrat MP who secured the debate, said she did so after being inspired by the thousands of schoolchildren who went on strike last month over the world's failure to adequately tackle the emergency.

Despite the issue being hailed “incredibly important” by energy minister Claire Perry, at times there were as few as 10 Tory MPs sat on the government benches.

The apparent indifference among MPs came just days after Theresa May accused protesting children of wasting lesson time and increasing teachers’ workloads.

This debate came just months after the United Nations warned the planet has just 11 years to cut carbon emissions in half in order to avert environmental catastrophe. However, most Tory MPs did not think this was an important enough warning to justify them staying in the chamber to scrutinise what the UK Government is doing about it.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Food safety - the harsh reality of those post-Brexit trade deals

When 52% of the country voted to leave the EU they did so with pledges of economic nirvana and public spending boosts ringing in their ears. Alas, two and a half years later, all of that promise has evaporated.

There will be no extra money for the health service. In fact we are having to pay £39 billion to meet our financial obligations as we close the door behind us. And as for those advantageous trade deals, they are as illusory as Scotch mist. Our Brexiteer Trade Secretary has clocked up thousands of air miles in that time with precious little to show for his efforts.

But fear not, it appears that Donald Trump is waiting on his white charger to ride to our rescue, providing it is on his terms and that we don't mind too much if he screws us over a bit as part of the deal.

The broken American trade deal dream is summed up in today's Guardian, who report that the United States is looking to remove “unwarranted barriers” related to “sanitary and phytosanitary” standards in the farm industry, something that would put it at loggerheads with the UK environment secretary, Michael Gove, who has repeatedly said British food standards will remain the same if not be better than they currently are.

The US has long considered EU rules on food a barrier to trade and has said fears that its food is unsafe to eat because of differences in production rules – including use of pesticides, chlorine and hormones – were unjustified:

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said it was not surprised that the US would be pushing for a trade deal that accepted its production standards and practices.

The NFU president, Minette Batters, said: “It is imperative that any future trade deals, including a possible deal with the USA, do not allow the imports of food produced to lower standards than those required of British farmers.

“British people value and demand the high standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety that our own farmers adhere to. These world-leading standards must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of reaching rushed trade deals.”

In response, Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg has told Sky News that the publication of the outline objectives was a “positive first step” to a deal with the US which would be “good for UK consumers as it would open markets to greater competition”.

The problem of course is the definition of 'greater competition'. If it means lower food standards then they can keep it.

Friday, March 01, 2019

More failings by Grayling

The Guardian carries a follow-up to my long history of Chris Grayling gaffes from two weeks ago, reporting on the findings of the National Audit Office that failings by the Ministry of Justice on his watch in the part-privatisation of probation services have been “extremely costly” for taxpayers.

They say that a review of Chris Grayling’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme found that the number of people on short sentences recalled to jail had soared and the termination of contracts with private probation companies would cost at least £171m.

There has been a 2.5% reduction in the proportion of offenders proven to have committed another crime between 2011 and March 2017. However, the number of offences per reoffender has increased by 22%:

Amyas Morse, the NAO chief, said: “The ministry set itself up to fail in how it approached probation reforms. Its rushed rollout created significant risks that it was unable to manage.

“Not only have these failings been extremely costly for taxpayers, but we have seen the number of people on short sentences recalled to prison skyrocket.”

Last July, the justice secretary, David Gauke, announced that private companies running CRCs would have their contracts terminated in 2020, two years earlier than agreed.

So far, they have received £467m in projected bailouts, a proportion of which was given to cover penalties owed by the companies for failing to meet targets under Grayling’s “payment by results” system. When current contract-holders were in the bidding process, their collected forecasted profits were £269m, but by March 2018 CRCs faced collective losses of £294m.

Is there no end to Chris Grayling's talents?

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