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Sunday, June 30, 2019

Labour divisions over Brexit exposed

The Independent says that divisions in Labour over Brexit have exploded into public as allies of Jeremy Corbyn clashed over the party's position:

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said Labour should "move now" to back a Final Say vote in all circumstances but Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite trade union, said the party should focus on delivering Brexit.

Mr McCluskey reportedly refused to support a policy change when Jeremy Corbyn met trade union leaders last week to propose that Labour support a referendum on any deal that is passed by parliament. The delay prompted fury anger among Labour MPs and members, the majority of whom back another public poll.

The union leader told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that there was no need to rush to change the party's current official position, which is to negotiate its own Brexit deal.

Insisting that Mr Corbyn would not be "bullied" into changing his stance, Mr McCluskey said: "The reality at the moment is that there's a lot of debate taking place. After the EU election, I appealed to people to calm down. There seems to be a panic to rush to establish a different position to the one the Labour Party has had for a cup of year now, which is respecting the 2016 referendum and trying to negotiate a deal that will unite the nation."

He added: "We have a policy that nothing should be taken off the table, including Labour's alternative, which is to get a Brexit that respects the result of the referendum."

Suggesting that any decision could be delayed until the party's annual conference in September, he said: "There is no rush to do anything. We've got a policy conference coming up in 12 weeks."

But Mr McDonnell said he was frustrated at the delay in fully backing another referendum. He admitted that he had expected to be announced last week but said trade union leaders had asked for "more time".

He said: "What I've been trying to say is that we need to move now and Jeremy said a month ago that we're going to put this issue back to the people."

None of this helps Labour of course, but the big picture is that while the official opposition continue to squabble amongst themselves in this way, and fail to adopt a clear position, Boris Johnson and his supporters in the Tory party continue to propel us towards a no-deal exit.

If that happens and the UK economy crashes as a result, Labour will bear the blame just as much as the European Research Group.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Broken Tory promises on Islamphobia?

The Guardian reports that an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative party, promised by Boris Johnson if he wins the leadership race, has been downgraded to a “general investigation” into all types of prejudice.

The paper says that the idea was raised by Sajid Javid during a BBC leadership debate involving the candidates still in the race at the time – the others being Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Rory Stewart:

Asked if he believed such an inquiry should be held, Javid said: “Yes I would – do you all agree, guys? Shall we have an external investigation in the Conservative party into Islamophobia?” The other candidates all seemingly agreed, with none raising any objections.

But in the ConservativeHome interview, when asked about the plan, Johnson said: “Well, I took it up with Saj afterwards and he said that actually, if I understand it correctly, what we’ve committed to is a general investigation into all types of prejudice and discrimination, including antisemitism.”

Asked if this would be an independent investigation, Johnson replied: “Yup.” He added: “So yes, we’ll have to study exactly what Saj has in mind, but it sounded like a sensible idea when he mentioned it.”

They add that the move was condemned by the Muslim Council of Britain, which said it demonstrated an “unwillingness to deal with bigotry seriously”, while Labour said Johnson had “broken his promise in less than two weeks”.

The extent of the problem facing the new Tory leader in putting this issue to bed was evidenced by the results of a poll of Tory members earlier this week. That poll found nearly half would prefer not to have a Muslim prime minister:

The survey, carried out by YouGov for the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate, also found more than two-thirds of Tory members believe the myth that parts of the UK are under sharia law, and 45% think some areas are not safe for non-Muslims.

Half the party’s members think Islamophobia is a big issue, but only 8% believe it is a problem within the party, the survey found, while 40% of members wanted to see fewer Muslims in the UK.

It is little wonder that the promises being made by Tory candidates are carrying little weight with the Muslim Council of Britain

Friday, June 28, 2019

Home Office report criticises its own hostile environment policy

The Guardian reports on a draft review of the Windrush scandal, was commissioned by the Home Office itself, which finds that the department failed to counter racial discrimination when it implemented its anti-immigration hostile environment programme.

The paper says that the damning document accuses officials of recklessness and a reticence to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes:

The report highlights the scale of the problems uncovered by the independent reviewer, Wendy Williams, an inspector of constabulary. She was commissioned to undertake the “Windrush lessons learned” review by the home secretary, Sajid Javid, last summer in the wake of reporting on the scandal by the Guardian.

“Whilst everyone I spoke to was rightly appalled by what happened, this was often juxtaposed with a self-justification, either in the form of it was unforeseen, unforeseeable and therefore unavoidable ... or a failure on the part of individuals to prove their status,” Williams wrote.

Theresa May put together the hostile environment policy, under which she sought to make life intolerable for people who had come from abroad to live in the UK in a bid to cut inward immigration numbers, during her time as home secretary. Williams’ review focuses on the impact of immigration laws from that period. A host of members of the Windrush generation were wrongly deported by the British authorities, with some having died without receiving redress or an apology.

Draft extracts of Williams’ review suggest the implementation of May’s policies was flawed because “it failed to adequately consider the past ... It failed to adequately consider the impact on people ... It also failed to adequately mitigate equalities issues including the potential for discrimination, particularly in housing.”

The document reportedly adds: “This appears particularly reckless considering the significant warnings that the department was given about their potential consequences.”

The paper adds that Williams also describes a “defensive culture that results in an unwillingness to learn from past mistakes” within the Home Office. She reportedly recommends that the department’s staff be educated in the UK’s colonial past and proposes that government ministers should admit that they were wrong and provide an unqualified apology.

This is a damning indictment of Theresa May and her policy in particular. Surely it must lead to a change in policy. The question is though, is it too late? Has the damage already been done?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Labour walk open-eyed into another anti-semitism controversy

It is getting to the stage where we are beginning to question whether the Labour Party really do have a desire to self-destruct. Their inability to deal with anti-Semitic tendencies within their ranks is becoming legion, while even when they have taken some steps to put an incident to bed, they cannot see it through to the end.

Chris Williamson is a case in point. As the Guardian reports, Labour MPs have expressed fury at his re-admission to the party after having been suspended for suggesting the party had been “too apologetic” about anti-Semitism.

The paper says that party investigators recommended the Derby North MP face a sterner sanction, but were overruled by a panel from the party’s national executive committee, made up of the MPs Keith Vaz and George Howarth and constituency rep Huda Elmi.

They quote a Labour source as saying that a party panel, advised by an independent barrister, had found Williamson breached party rules and issued a formal sanction, though chose not to refer him to Labour’s highest disciplinary body, the national constitutional committee, which considers possible expulsions. “He could face further, more severe, action if he repeats any similar comments or behaviour,” a party source said. Reaction has been swift:

Labour’s Ruth Smeeth called the decision “disgusting” and said colleagues did not want Williamson in the party. “I am horrified,” she said on Wednesday. “It says a great deal about how seriously we’re taking anti-Jewish hate.” She added that she was “not comfortable being in the same room” as the Derby North MP.


Labour MPs including Stella Creasy, Jess Phillips and Wes Streeting, all expressed disgust at the decision. Phillips said she was “disgusted but not surprised anymore” and suggested she would have been expelled had she said similar things to Williamson.

Creasy said it was “the best example yet of why we need an independent process for antisemitism and sexual harassment complaints.

The Jewish Labour Movement also criticised the decision and said it showed the “moral turpitude” the party was currently in. Chair Mike Katz said: “How dare the Labour party deny it is institutionally racist against Jews when it decides to take no action against Chris Williamson?

“It seems the decision to let him off is because he represents a marginal seat and there might be a snap election. It’s good to know that a party of anti-racists, led by an avowed anti-racist decides it’s OK to ignore anti-Jewish racism if there’s a vote to be won.”

The problem is of course that these MP are talking a good game, but what are they actually doing about it?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The continuing muddle and confusion of Labour under Corbyn

The Independent reports that Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of more “muddle and confusion” after Labour again failed to agree a shift to fully back a further Brexit referendum.

The paper says that for the second week running, a shadow cabinet meeting broke up without reaching a consensus to end what has been widely criticised as fence-sitting by the Labour leader, with one source telling the paper that there was “no change” in referendum policy, while a second described “no movement”:

Phil Wilson MP, a Labour MP supporting the People’s Vote campaign, said: “The longer this dithering goes on, the more damage will be done to our party.

“This is the biggest decision facing our country for a generation and Labour voters, Labour members and Labour MPs expect our party to have a clear policy that reflects our values.

“Instead, we have to listen to muddle, confusion and the sound of the can being kicked listlessly down a never-ending road.”

It seems that Labour and the Tories have more in common than they are prepared to admit.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Will the 'Dirty Dozen' Tories live up to their threat?

The bravado being displayed by the two remaining candidates for the Tory leadership over a no-deal Brexit may well be tickling all the right places for the Conservative faithful, but it does raise questions as to whether they can actually deliver on leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October.

According to the BBC defence minister Tobias Ellwood, believes that "A dozen or so" Conservative MPs could support a vote of no confidence to stop a no-deal Brexit. He told Panorama that many backbenchers and ministers would rebel if the UK faced leaving the EU on the 31 October deadline without a legal agreement:

The current government has a working Commons majority - its effective numerical advantage over all the other parties - of just four and depends on the backing of the Democratic Unionists.

This makes it highly vulnerable to defeat if a small number of its MPs side with Labour and other opposition parties.

Theresa May survived a no confidence vote in January after MPs rejected her Withdrawal Agreement with the EU for the first time. At the time, no Tory MPs backed the move.

But MPs have suggested this could change if the next prime minister - whether it is Boris Johnson or his rival Jeremy Hunt - tries to take the UK out of the EU on 31 October without a legally-binding agreement.

It seems that Theresa May's departure will change nothing. Whoever wins the vote and becomes Prime Minister will face precisely the same obstacles and dilemmas that plagued her premiership. The chaos will continue and, given the position of the various parties, it looks like a general election will solve nothing.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Those hypocritical Tory MPs

'Do what I say, not what I do' could well be the new slogan of the Conservative Party. That is clearly the view of some campaigners, who have been calling for the liberalisation of Britain's drug laws.

As the Guardian reports, marchers from the Anyone’s Child group, who are walking along the Thames Valley and into London to meet MPs at Westminster on Tuesday, have branded Conservative politicians who have admitted taking drugs, as hypocrites:

Rose Humphries, the mother of two young men killed by heroin, said she hoped revelations that the former Tory leadership candidates Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom took cocaine and cannabis respectively many years ago would help change both political and public attitudes towards legalising drugs.

Despite their sons’ deaths from heroin abuse, Humphries and her husband, Jeremy, have joined the movement agitating for the legalisation and state regulation of all recreational drugs.

Humphries said: “On hearing that Michael Gove took cocaine, while his government [has since] continued the failed policy of drug prohibition I thought to myself – ‘what hypocrites’.

“But then if it starts to make people out there think about the current situation where every recreational drug is banned then maybe that revelation was a good thing. Because it’s not just about changing politicians’ minds but also that of the public.”

The couple’s younger son, Roland, died aged 23 in 2003. Eleven years later Jake, 37, also died from heroin abuse. Yet the couple, who are in their early 70s, are strong advocates for legalisation.

“It’s so obvious that after 50-plus years the policy of prohibition doesn’t work; a policy that costs lives,” Jeremy Humphries said. “In relation to Roland he was with other people when he overdosed and no one called for help because I believe they were afraid of being arrested for taking drugs as well.”

The Humphries, from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, said their sons were “good people whom we brought up well”.

All the evidence points to the legalisation of cannabis and decriminalising possession of other drugs, coupled with tight regulation, as helping reduce addiction and criminal activity.

Maybe those Tory politicians who experimented when they were younger, but who now advocate harsh penalties for people who follow in their footsteps, need to take a reality check.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Why the supermarkets need to get onboard with saving our planet

As a local councillor I spend a disproportionate amount of my time dealing with recycling issues, in particular the council's policy on what plastic it is prepared to accept in the fortnightly collections.

However, the real problem lies not with the council but with the manufacturers and the supermarkets who, for all their rhetoric about saving the planet, are actually making it more difficult for us to act in an environmentally conscious way.

The Independent reports that half of packaging used by major UK supermarkets cannot be recycled easily. This makes it difficult for customers who wish to dispose of their waste correctly and increases the chance of it ending up in landfill:

For the study, by consumer charity Which?, researchers analysed the packaging of 46 popular items from supermarkets including Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Tesco.

They looked at the component parts of the packaging and assessed whether each piece could be easily recycled.

According to Which?, products are deemed easy to recycle if they can be placed in household recycling and picked up by the council.

Their findings showed that 52 per cent of packaging met these requirements – including pieces with cardboard, glass and plastic.

But 42 per cent of the total supermarket packaging was found to be labelled either incorrectly or not at all.

Despite Morrisons recently announcing it will sell 20p paper carrier bags in all stores to reduce plastic waste, the supermarket was said to be the worst offender among those assessed.

The research showed that many of its own-brand items were packaged in non-recyclable plastic film. As a result, 61 per cent of its packaging is not easily recyclable, researchers say.

Meanwhile, 58 per cent of the packaging materials used by Co-op were also not widely recyclable.​ The study also showed that 48 per cent of the packaging in most supermarkets including Asda, Lidl, Ocado, and Sainsbury’s was not recyclable.

Tesco and Waitrose were named the best supermarkets for recyclable packaging, with just 40 per cent found not to be easily recycled.

When it came to labelling, Iceland was found to be the worst among the supermarkets, with only two in five (38 per cent) pieces of packaging correctly labelled.

That said, eight in 10 (78 per cent) of Asda’s products were found to be correctly labelled.

It is hard to disagree with Which! that in order to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill, the government should make labelling “mandatory, simple and clear", but there also needs to be some legislation to reduce packaging overall. We are wasting so much of the planet's resources in marketing. That has to stop.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Who will be choosing the next Prime Minister?

It is fair to say that most of us are watching the machinations and intrigues around selecting the next leader of the Conservative Party, and our next Prime Minister, with a mixture of astonishment and horror. It is like seeing a slow motion car crash in horrendous detail on a loop tape, so terrifying that even though we have seen it once, twice, three times, we still can't turn our head away.

But who are these 120,00 people who will be determining the fate of our country, and how representative are they of the rest of the country? The Independent thinks that it knows:

What we know about the make-up of the Tory membership is very little, because the party refuses to release demographic details.

However, helpfully, a research initiative by Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sussex has been surveying members of all parties since 2015. This is what it has found about our new Tory masters:
So, this selectorate is strongly white, male, wealthy, Telegraph-loving and fiercely opposed to compromise on Brexit. There does seem to be at least one candidate matching that description – his second name is Johnson.

We are doomed, doomed, I tell you.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Claims that Brexit is a 'major influence' in racism and hate crime rise

The BBC report that racism and race-related hate crime has increased since the 2016 Brexit referendum, leading to 24 community cohesion officers being appointed by councils across Wales to deal with the resultant "tensions".

These officers have been tasked with focussing on developing strong links with European Union citizens and other minority groups which might feel susceptible to Brexit tensions.

The BBC quote Eryl Jones, from the charity Show Racism the Red Card, who believes Brexit has been a "major influence":

"Incidents of racism have gone up throughout the UK as well as in Wales since the campaign to leave the EU, " Mr Jones said.

"It's fairly obvious that Brexit has been a major influence.

" "The feeling is that a lot of people believe they have the right to express their racist feelings or to show hatred."
The latest police figures released to the BBC Radio Cymru Manylu programme following a Freedom of Information request are:
  • North Wales Police reported 416 crimes in 2014, rising to 476 in 2016 and 858 in 2018 
  • Gwent Police reported a rise from 374 in 2015-16 to 651 in 2018-19 
  • South Wales Police said there were 879 incidents in 2013-14, rising to 1,102 in 2014-15, 1,232 in in 2015-16 and 1,244 in 2017-18 
  • Dyfed-Powys Police did not provide figures 
The concern now is that with the next Prime Minister likely to be a hard-line leaver with a record of making racist remarks, and all the diplomatic skills of a group of cats faced with a mouse, then the number of racist incidents will increase.

It is a depressing and concerning trend that may unfortunately just get worse.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Corbyn keeps to the script

You cannot criticise Jeremy Corbyn for his consistency. One can however question his effectiveness as an opposition leader and his commitment to doing what is best for the country. This is especially so after he once more rebuffed calls to commit Labour to a people's vote on Brexit.

I wonder how else he proposes to resolve the impasse that is threatening to rip apart both Labour and Tory Parties, whilst turning conventional UK politics on its head, not to mention the devastating impact Brexit will have on the UK economy, our international standing and our standard of living.

The biggest disappointment of the whole Brexit debacle has been the way Labour have failed to act as an opposition, but have gone out of their way to work with the Tories to facilitate our exit from the EU, even when it became abundantly clear that the whole thing was toxic and that any withdrawal agreement we could get would be against our national interest.

The Guardian records that at a 'fractious and inconclusive shadow cabinet meeting', Corbyn continued to sit on the fence over a people's vote on Brexit, with even close allies believe the message is still not clear enough, and the party risks losing voters to the ardently anti-Brexit Lib Dems:

Shadow ministers were told they would be returning to the issue of Brexit at next Tuesday’s meeting; and keen supporters of a people’s vote said they hoped the statement was just the first step in what one called a “managed climbdown”.

However, others said they remained concerned that any shift would be too little, too late to win back disgruntled voters.

McDonnell has told friends that while he is sympathetic to Corbyn’s desire to continue trying to respect the referendum, and represent both remain and leave, he is concerned about morale among party members.

Essentially, Corbyn has taken the 1975 Harold Wilson line of allowing his payroll vote to go off and do their own thing. It is little wonder that nobody knows where Labour really stands on Brexit.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Electoral Commission pull up Brexit Party on funding

It was long overdue, but at last the Electoral Commission has asked Nigel Farage’s Brexit party to check the £2.5 million it has received in donations to ensure the money has come from legitimate sources.

They will apparently oversee checks carried out by the party after criticising the way the party accepts gifts through online payment systems such as PayPal. And they have stipulated that any money that cannot be traced should be returned to the donor or given to the Treasury.

The Guardian says that the request follows a report released by the commission last Wednesday, which said the party’s structure “leaves it open to a high and ongoing risk of receiving and accepting impermissible donations”.

They add that new documents from the commission, which were released on Monday, show the party has been asked to “review all payments, including those of £500 or below, it has received to date”.

The commission has also asked that the party amend its online system for accepting payments so that donors give their full address and contact details and that it uses systems in future that will only accept payments from a card where the billing address matches the payer’s address:

The party, which won 29 seats in last month’s European elections, could face penalties unless it overhauls its fundraising system to ensure all donations above £500 come from the UK, as the law requires.

Critics are concerned the party’s present system allows an individual or a foreign power to make many small payments to a party, each less than £500, with no legal requirement for any details to be submitted.

A number of people highlighted during the recent European election campaign, how the Brexit Party's website allowed overseas donors to contribute potentially illegal, but non-declarable donations of less than £500.

Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who exposed Cambridge Analytica, even demonstrated that the Brexit Party's Paypal system was allowing foreign currencies to be converted into pound sterling, with the ultimate source of that money being shielded by the lack of a requirement for the donor to give a matching name and address.

In the circumstances, it is absolutely right that the Electoral Commission should have acted on this and required any illegal payments to be repaid.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The 21st Century Parliament operating nineteenth century rules

I blogged earlier this year on the ridiculous and retrograde way that the House of Commons treats pregnant MPs.

The archaic working practices that female MPs have to endure was brought to a head in July 2018 when the Tory Chief Whip asked party chairman, Brandon Lewis to break a pairing agreement with Lib Dem MP, Jo Swinson, who had recently given birth and was effectively taking maternity leave.

In January of this year, a cross-party delegation of MPs met the speaker to implore him to introduce a new baby leave system, which would allow proxy voting for new mothers and fathers. They were concerned that at the informal nature of the current system for parental leave and the fact it is organised by the political parties, being totally reliant on the pairing system, which can break down during crucial votes. This request was eventually granted.

Now the Labour MP, Stella Creasy has highlighted the dilemma she faces as an expectant mother, when faced with the antiquated working practices and rules operated by the House of Commons. As the Guardian reports, she feels parliament is telling her to “choose between being a mum and being an MP”, revealing that the parliamentary standards authority has told expectant mothers it does not recognise any form of maternity leave and will not automatically provide extra support for constituency work after she gives birth.

Creasy said she had decided to speak out after experiencing two miscarriages during which she was forced to continue to work as normal without any additional support:

Now pregnant again, she said she had been told that MPs would not be provided with any additional funding for support staff by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to allow her to get extra help with constituency work.

The MP for Walthamstow said she had been heartened by the introduction of proxy voting, introduced earlier this year after a the Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, who heavily pregnant, was forced to delay her caesarean section and vote in a wheelchair, but that far more had to change.

Creasy said that during her first miscarriage, she had carried on constituency work “aching and bleeding”, including joining a protest for the extradition of a man who had raped and murdered a constituent. After her second miscarriage she said she had to arrange the medical procedure around constituency advice surgeries.

“Heartbroken by all the years that I have struggled with fertility, I’ve kept these events to myself and made sure my constituents have never been affected,” she writes. “Now I’m pregnant once more and terrified – not just that it will go wrong again, but because I know that my resolve to keep my private and professional lives separate has become impossible.”

Creasy said she had approached Ipsa about funding for cover but was told it “does not ‘recognise’ that MPs go on maternity leave”.

“Humiliatingly, it is making me beg for extra staff funding – or give up any chance of spending time with my child to make sure my constituents don’t miss out,” she writes. “If a GP or vicar were on leave, a locum would be provided to ensure continuity of services. In Denmark, a member of the national parliament would have a substitute MP appointed.”

Creasy is absolutely right when she says that the struggle MPs experience trying to take adequate maternity leave is one of many issues where fertility is still a barrier to equality, and in highlighting non-disclosure agreements used to cover up maternity discrimination and the postcode lottery of fertility treatments.

What sort of inhuman organisation is IPSA that it effectively does not recognise nor make allowances for MPs to give birth? Isn't it about time that they joined the twenty first century as well?

Monday, June 17, 2019

Private firms profiting from new UK visa system

The Independent carries a shocking story this morning, claiming that private firms have raked in millions of pounds through the Home Office’s newly outsourced visa system, as people are forced to pay “extortionate” fees and travel long distances to apply for UK status.

They say that immigration lawyers have warned legal migrants risk being “thrown into the hostile environment” after the visa processing service was outsourced to French firm Sopra Steria last November. Those affected include some people applying for EU settled status ahead of Brexit – despite the government stating that this application is free:

While visa applicants could previously go to their local post office to upload documents and provide biometric data such as fingerprints, they must now attend one of just six “core centres” across the country which offer a free service, or another 51 which charge a fee starting from £60.

Sopra Steria also offers a “premium service” through a partner company called BLS, where appointments start at £200. The service made more than £2m between January and April 2019, according to data obtained through a freedom of information (FOI) request.

Solicitors said applicants had been unable to book free appointments due to a lack of availability on Sopra Steria’s website, with some forced to travel hundreds of miles or pay high fees in order to submit their applications on time.

Other applicants have been met with a “maze of misinformation and misdirection” while completing the new online application forms provided by the firm, which lawyers said had led people to abandon the process or submit inaccurate applications, potentially leading to erroneous refusals.

The Independent has also learned that family members of EU nationals must go through the privatised system to obtain biometric residency cards in order to apply for the EU settlement scheme, despite the government pledging that the application to settle their status post-Brexit was free.

The paper reports that Law Society President, Christina Blacklaws has raised concerns that this “inconsistent” and “substandard” system could lead to unlawful or incorrect decisions for applicants, or exclude people from the system because of “inflated prices and inaccessible services”. She said Sopra Steria applicants were being offered “often very costly, unnecessary supplementary services when they may be particularly vulnerable”:

“There is a real risk of an increase in Home Office refusals based on a lack of evidence simply because the subcontractor has rejected, failed to request or to transfer the relevant evidence from applicants to the Home Office,” she added.

“These grave problems in our immigration system undermine the rule of law, while also damaging our country’s reputation for justice and fairness.”

The Independent reveals that FOI data shows more than 8,000 appointments were booked at the premium lounge in the first four months of 2019. With appointments starting at £200 off-peak and rising to £260 during office hours, this indicates that the firm has collected nearly £2m at this location alone.

The data also shows that of 52,504 appointments booked at the Croydon centre – one of the six core centres that offer free appointments – between January and April this year, a third (17,000) paid a fee in order to secure a same-day appointment or one outside office hours.

This sort of profit making at the expense of migrants is completely unacceptable. It is exploiting a group of people who are already unsettled and looking for security and certainty. Now that it is out in the open, it should be up to Parliament to challenge the government on these practices and force them to be changed.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The growth of racism in the UK

A United Nations report has claimed that austerity measures and ”hostile environment“ policies adopted by the government have entrenched racism and stoked xenophobic sentiment in the UK.

Tendayi Achiume, the UN’s special rapporteur on racism, who visited the UK on a fact-finding mission last year, described the “structural socioeconomic exclusion” of racial and ethnic minorities in the UK as “striking”. She said race, ethnicity, religion, gender and disability status all continued to determine the life chances and wellbeing of people in Britain in ways that were “unacceptable and, in many cases, unlawful”.

As the Independent says, hHer report said austerity measures had been “disproportionately detrimental” to people of racial and ethnic minorities. It highlighted that these groups were also overrepresented in criminal justice enforcement and underrepresented within the institutions that adjudicate crime and punishment:

In a damning indictment of the UK’s approach to immigration enforcement, Ms Achiume also called for an end to the hostile environment, saying it “relied on private citizens and civil servants to do frontline immigration enforcement, effectively transforming places like hospitals, banks and private residences into border checkpoints”.

She added: “In a broader context of national anti-immigrant anxiety, the predictable result of the UK government’s immigration policy and enforcement is racial discrimination and racialised exclusion. The Windrush scandal is a glaring example.”

The rapporteur said her findings should not come as surprise to the government, as their own data and reports – including the Race Disparity Audit, the Lammy Review, and the work of the UK Equality Commission – substantiated the “persistent exclusion and marginalisation of racial and ethnic minorities”

The report also points to government data showing that the Brexit referendum coincided with a spike in hate crimes, anti-migrant rhetoric, and racial, ethnic and religious discrimination.

“To be clear, Brexit has not newly introduced racism and xenophobia to the UK – both have a long legacy that extends as far back as the historical European projects of slavery and colonialism,” said Ms Achiume. “That said, national debates and certain practices and policies before, during and after the Brexit referendum in 2016 have amplified racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in the UK. Public and private actors have played dangerous roles in fuelling intolerance.

“Among them, politicians and media outlets deserve special attention given the significant influence they command in society.”

Whether you agree with this analysis or not (and the UK Government does not, arguing that it mischaracterises their policies and incorrectly argues that recent events have catalysed what are in fact long-term trends), it does give an indication of how the UK is viewed by many people outside of our borders, post-Brexit.

In that regard Ministers should take it seriously, and respond more positively with clear initiatives to reverse and tackle the racism and exclusion that is highlighted, and which clearly does exist across the country.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The huge disparity afflicting the housing market

Today's Guardian tells us about a new report which claims that property wealth in Britain from second homes has risen by more than 50% over the past two decades to reach nearly £1 trillion.

Research by the Resolution Foundation has found that total property wealth for UK residents from second homes, buy-to-let investments and overseas property has risen in value from around £610bn in 2001 to £941bn. The number of British adults in families who have wealth from properties additional to their own home has risen by more than 50% this century to reach 5.5 million – around one in 10 of the UK population.

At the same time, we are witnessing falling levels of home ownership for the UK population, so that of the estimated 23.2m households in England, 14.8m or 64% are owner-occupiers, down from a peak of 71% in 2003.

Almost 2 million people own rental properties, up from about 1.2 million in 2008, while the total number of buy-to-let mortgages has risen by about 15 times since the turn of the millennium:

A lack of new council homes being built to replace those sold under Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy policy has contributed to an imbalanced housing market, with a dearth of affordable homes, while increasing numbers live in private-rented accommodation.

There are also concerns over the divisions of wealth in modern Britain. House prices have boomed over the past decade since the financial crisis, while wage growth has stalled.

Wealth inequality is much greater than the differences in pay between workers, with the wealth of the top 10% richest households worth about five times more than that of the bottom half of all families combined. Illustrating the scale of the rising wealth tied up in second homes, the Resolution Foundation said additional properties accounted for about 15.8% of the £6tn in gross property wealth in Britain, up from 13.7% in 2006-08.

The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that older generations in particular had benefited from the rise in property values, as property wealth typically takes years to accumulate. Around one in six people born in the 1950s report additional property wealth, the highest of any cohort.

The rise in buy-to-let home ownership has led to the increasing transfer of wealth across the generational divide, as younger private renters line the pockets of older landlords. The research showed that the baby boomer generation born around the time of the second world war received more than half of all rental income in Britain.

Trends like these are difficult to turn around easily, but with an increasing number of young families not being able to afford to get onto the property ladder at all, there is clearly a need for some sort of intervention by government.

Certainly, we need to build more social, affordable and intermediate homes to rent and buy, but we should also look at schemes such as Rent to own, being promoted by the Welsh Government at the instigation of the Liberal Democrats.

Above all this trend underlines the argument for us to be taxing wealth more effectively, so as to be better able to pay for the sort of schemes I have outlined in the previous paragraph.

Friday, June 14, 2019

EU spells out consequences of no deal

Brazen assertions by Tory leadership candidates that Europe fears a no-deal as much as the UK, may well be accurate but the stakes are much higher for us than the other 27 countries and they know it, and that is why at the end of the day they will let us self-destruct.

That assertion is made clear by this article in the Independent, in which they report on analysis by the European Commission, which concludes that the UK economy will be hit up to 10 times harder by a no-deal Brexit than the continent's.

They say that the working assumption in Brussels is bad news for Tory leadership contenders like Boris Johnson, who are hoping to use the threat of a no-deal Brexit as part of their strategy for renegotiating Theresa May’s Brexit deal:

A “state of play” document put out by the commission this week, meant to brief EU leaders, MEPs, and central bankers on the current situation, cites a 2019 estimate by the IMF that the long-term effect on the EU’s GDP by a no deal will be “well below 1 per cent”. The commission says this is “in line with most other studies”.

By contrast, when looking at how the UK fares, the commission cites figures ranging from 3 per cent to 8 per cent for the hit to the UK economy, including the British government’s own 2018 estimate of 7.7 per cent.

“As the commission has constantly stressed, contingency measures can only mitigate the most significant disruptions of a withdrawal without an agreement. While the commission does not speculate on the possible economic implications of different scenarios, it is clear that a withdrawal of the United Kingdom without an agreement would have a serious negative economic impact, and that this impact would be proportionally much greater in the United Kingdom than the EU27 member states,” the document says.

“Preparations by member states and stakeholders are likely to reduce their individual exposure to the negative impact of a withdrawal without an agreement. A high level of preparedness across all sectors of the economy will also mitigate the negative impact.”

The paper says that the economic assumptions are based on the British economy being subject to WTO “most favoured nation” tariffs, which apply to WTO members in the absence of other agreement and comes just days after a leaked UK cabinet paper warned that the UK was not ready for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, when the current extension of the Article 50 period will expire if it is not extended again.

Isn't it about time that these realities were accepted by those seeking to enter Number 10 Downing Street in a few week's time?

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Labour disarray hands moral victory to hardline Brexiteers

A cross-party attempt to stop a no-deal Brexit failed yesterday, handing a moral victory to hardline Brexiteers, who want us to crash out of Europe without a deal on 31 October.

The motion proposed giving MPs control of the parliamentary agenda in a fortnight’s time. That day could then have been used to begin legislation to prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal, though it is uncertain what form this would take.

However, despite Labour spearheading the move, it was their ill-discipline that saw it defeated. Eight Labour MPs including Caroline Flint, John Mann and Graham Stringer voted with the government against the motion and 13 more abstained. Ten Conservative MPs voted with Labour. The motion failed by just 11 votes.

As the Guardian reports, the result of the vote handed a boost to Conservative leadership candidates including Boris Johnson hoping to force a “deal or no deal” Brexit in October:

The former Conservative MP Nick Boles warned opponents of a no-deal departure were fast running out of options – apart from a confidence vote to bring down the government. “No-deal Brexit on 31 October is back to being a racing certainty,” he said. “It is very hard to see where any further legislative opportunities will come from. So it’s now a question of politics – specifically whether a PM pursuing a no-deal Brexit can command and sustain the confidence of the House of Commons.”

Johnson officially launched his campaign on Wednesday saying he believed a new government “with a new mandate, a new optimism, a new determination” could leave the EU with an amended deal by 31 October. However, the leadership frontrunner warned that he was determined to leave the EU by that date, whether he had achieved a new deal or not.

“I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome, I don’t think we can end up with any such thing. But it is only responsible to prepare vigorously and seriously,” he said.

Johnson refused to say what he would do if he had not secured an improved deal in time for 31 October – or whether he would resign if the deadline were not met or no deal was prevented.

Brexit has turned into a fiasco because for almost the whole of the last three years, Labour have been missing in action as an official opposition, determined to facilitate our exit from the EU and in doing so propping up the Tory Government.

Yesterday's vote demonstrates that when they do try and lead, they cannot get their troops behind  them. It is little wonder that the country's disillusionment with the whole process is so strong.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

UK Government vetting social media of potential candidates for public bodies

The case of a drugs expert, who has been denied appointment to a policy panel, has highlighted a new vetting trend for candidates seeking to serve on public bodies.

The Guardian reports that a government minister vetoed the appointment of Niamh Eastwood, the director of Release, the UK’s centre on drugs and drug laws, to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which makes drug policy recommendations to government, after vetting found she had criticised the Home Office and called for drug policy reform.

They say that an online search by the ACMD secretariat found that Eastwood had described a Home Office policy position as “utter BS” and claimed it was “just making s**t up” in a tweet. And documents released under a subject access request also revealed that candidates for public bodies now have their social media profiles scrutinised by ministers, including posts regarding the “PM/government”, Windrush, Brexit and anything “diversity-related”:

Although it was recognised that her “contribution could enrich the group”, there was concern that she “may use the appointment as an inappropriate lobbying opportunity”.

It was suggested that Eastwood’s “clear views on drugs liberalisation” might impede her ability to be “impartial, and provide unbiased views”. When asked for comment, the Home Office claimed that the decision was made “on the basis of expertise”.

Vetting candidates for such appointments has been tightened following Toby Young’s brief time at the Office for Students after he came under scrutiny for a number of offensive tweets.

In a subsequent report, the Commissioner for Public Appointments highlighted a “possible lack of due diligence by the recruiting department” and there are now checks on “relevant social media content”.

Obviously, it is a matter for ministers who they have advising them, but these latest revelations do beg the question of why anybody would want to staff expert panels with yes-people, when good policy depends on robust debate, taking into account all points of view?

Government should not be an echo chamber. Minister need to access expert opinion on all sides of an argument before taking decisions. To do otherwise just leaves us with a partisan mess, much like Brexit really.

On the plus side, having now reviewed my own social media, I now know not to waste my time applying for public appointments.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

What happens if we don't pay the EU divorce bill?

As the Tory leadership campaign gets underway, some of the candidates have taken a hard line on how we will leave the EU, even going so far as to propose us not paying the £39 billion divorce bill, previously agreed in negotiations.

On first glance this is a compelling line for hardliners, but the consequences of us with-holding this money are severe and any candidate suggesting that it the UK can default on the payment cannot be a serious candidate for Prime Minister.

The Independent has looked at what those consequences would be. They say that the £39bn is mostly the UK's outstanding budget payments that would have been paid in 2019 and 2020 were Britain not leaving the EU, and also some other commitments like pension contributions for civil servants. It is an estimate, based on the formula agreed in the withdrawal agreement.

The sum covers commitments already made by the UK at an international level, notably it is the multi-year EU budget which was signed by the UK in 2013, running from 2014 until 2020. The likes of Boris Johnson believe that we can opt out of payment because after the UK has left the EU, it is no longer subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. However, there are other ways that these agreements can be enforced.

The UK is, for instance, part of the international arbitration court in the Hague. As the Independent points out, this has nothing to do with the EU and they could potentially rule on the case. We wouldn't know whether the UK would be legally bound until the tribunal ruled.  There are more serious consequences:

The EU line is that it would not negotiate any kind of trade deal with the UK after a no-deal, unless three things were settled: the Irish border, citizens' rights, and the financial settlement. So any neglect of any of those things would see the UK locked out of a trading relationship with its largest neighbour. That means the EU strategy in the case of the UK not paying the divorce bill would be to wait for it to be paid.

When the UK was set to leave in 29 March 2019, the EU set up a system that would have allowed the UK to voluntarily pay the divorce bill even in the event it left with a no-deal. The British government would have been given a few weeks - to indicate that it would pay by April 18, and pay the money by April 30. In the end this facility wasn't needed, but you can expect a similar approach to be taken if there is no other extension October.

What would the practical effects of withholding the money be?

The money would probably require emergency cuts to the EU budget - which means EU-funded projects that had planned on the basis of being funded would probably lose their funding. This would be the case unless other EU member states stepped up to cover the gap.

The UK would also be reneging on pension payments for some EU civil servants who had served while the UK was in the EU, some of whom are in fact British. This might be politically difficult for the government.

£39 billion is a lot of money, but not enough to actually cripple the EU. It's unlikely, given the statements of EU officials and leaders, that they would change their red lines to get it back. But you could expect them to sue the UK at the Hague.

Equally as serious is the impact that withholding payment would have on other trade arrangements. Why would any country sign a deal with us when we have a reputation for walking away from our international commitments?

Not paying up is a rogue's charter. We would be branded the untrusty con-men of international relations. It would take years to re-establish trust. In the meantime our economy would go down the pan. Yet another reason why Boris Johnson and those who take the same line, are not fit to be Prime Minister.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The facts on M4 congestion around Port Talbot and Swansea

When the decision not to build an M4 by-pass around Newport was announced last week I argued that it had in any case been a very 'Cardiff-centric' scheme:

The level of congestion and number of business-sapping accidents are as bad on the stretch of the M4 between junctions 37 and 45 as those around Newport, but there is no sign of a multi-billion pound scheme to tackle those problems. That is because it is not the Cardiff region economy that suffers from delays generated by these incidents. 

Now the BBC have very kindly reported on statistics that back up my argument. They have concluded that motorway congestion west of Swansea has seen the biggest increase in M4 traffic - up 78% since 2000. And they confirm worries that the building of thousands of new homes off the motorway will add to these problems.

One transport expert, Professor Mark Barry, says that the issues are a "brake on the economy" of Swansea Bay. He suggests a re-think of city deal priorities to improve connectivity:

The five M4 junctions in Wales which have seen the biggest increases have all been west of Port Talbot, according to Department for Transport figures.

Junction 48 has seen a 45.5% increase in traffic. In the morning peak hour, more than 2,000 vehicles pass through junction 47 heading east.

The need for investment in public transport here has never been so stark. According to analysis by the Centre for Cities, Swansea has one of the lowest proportions of commuting by public transport in the UK - just 6% travel by bus or train.

There is an urgent need for a Swansea Metro system to be introduced in the region to take pressure off the M4. In short, we need a share of the £2 billion that was allocated to deal with congestion around Newport.  Not everything is about Cardiff. Isn't it time the Welsh Government recognised that.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Labour's patchy record on dealing with bullying and harrassment

It is becoming impossible to do otherwise than conclude that Labour's approach to disciplining its members is haphazard at best, discriminatory at worse. The latest incarnation of this hit and miss policy has been exposed in today's Sunday Times.

They report that Jeremy Corbyn has been plunged into a new scandal over his party’s handling of bullying and harassment after it emerged that his most senior aide dismissed an investigation into a close ally accused of inappropriate conduct around young women.

They say that Karie Murphy, the Labour leader’s chief of staff, operated outside formal procedures and said that she would instead “have a word” with Peter Willsman, a veteran activist and friend of Corbyn:

Willsman, 75, was subject to a formal complaint by a young staffer who alleged he asked where she lived, whether she liked clubbing — and sent texts saying he was in his pyjamas. He “refused” to leave her alone. She received no response to her complaint.

In a further blow, it can also be revealed that Labour gagged a young female staff member after she accused a shadow cabinet minister of bullying.

Last year party headquarters negotiated a non-disclosure agreement with a woman in her twenties who said the MP, a senior ally of Corbyn’s, treated her poorly.

They add that separately, Corbyn is under growing pressure to suspend Lisa Forbes, the newly elected Peterborough MP, who “liked” a post saying that Theresa May had a “Zionist slave masters agenda”.

Details of Willsman's case comes a week after Murphy was revealed to have blocked a decision to suspend the membership of David Prescott, a Corbyn aide accused of sexual misconduct in 2017. He denies the allegations.

Who knows how differently events might have turned out if the same approach had been taken with former Welsh Government Minister, Carl Sargeant

Saturday, June 08, 2019

The cost of no deal on our weekly shop

With so many Tory leadership contenders advocating us leaving the EU on 31 October with a no-deal, and with very few alternatives on the table, it is worth reminding ourselves of the consequences of such a course for the rest of us.

The Independent features analysis by the GMB Trade Union, which finds that the cost of a family’s weekly shop could rocket by more than £800 a year in these circumstances. They claim that the bill for a typical supermarket basket of goods would increase by £15.61 a week – 17 per cent – if Britain was forced to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules, which require tariffs on many goods:

Among the price hikes resulting from the application of the WTO’s “most favoured nation” rules would by 42p on a 250g pack of butter (up 28 per cent), 62p on a 460g chunk of own-brand Cheddar (up 26.9 per cent), 43p on a pack of eight sausages (up 25.3 per cent), 32p on a 2.5 kilo bag of potatoes (up 14.4 per cent) and £2.56 on a bottle of red wine (up 32 per cent), according to the analysis by Acuity Analysis.

Releasing the figures on the eve of GMB's annual congress in Brighton, the union’s general secretary Tim Roache said: "Tory leadership contenders who casually throw around the idea of no-deal Brexit are completely ignoring what that reality would mean for working people.

A no-deal Brexit is far from being a victimless crime. In fact its victims would be too large a number to estimate. Wouldn't it be nice if the likes of Raab. Johnson and Farage acknowledged that?

Friday, June 07, 2019

Debunking Trump: A guide to climate change

Despite a 90 minute lecture from Prince Charles on climate change, it appears that Donald Trump left these shores as confused as ever about the subject and the United States contribution to the global disaster we are facing.

It is handy therefore to have this CNN guide to put him right, a piece where they fact check his interview with Piers Morgan. Trump will no doubt pronounce it fake news, but the reality is that his lack of understanding of the subject, and his reluctance to acknowledge the problem, is putting the world at greater risk. These are the key points:

A change in the weather

"I believe that there is a change in weather and I think it changes both ways," Trump told Morgan.

Facts First: This is a classic example of someone confusing weather and climate, which both change naturally, but on far different time scales and for different reasons.

Weather refers to conditions that occur locally and over short periods of time -- from hours to days -- such as rain, snow, heat waves and cold snaps.

Climate, however, is the long-term average over a broader region, including global averages of variables such as temperature and rainfall, over years or decades.

While weather changes from day to day and season to season, changes in climate are extremely slow, taking centuries or even thousands of years for even small changes to take place. Of course, small changes can have big effects.

While climate changes naturally -- and indeed, changes in global temperature go both ways naturally -- what we have seen over the course of the last century has only been one way: up. The speed at which the global average temperature rise has changed is how scientists know that what's happening is man-made.

No, the term global warming was not changed to climate change

Trump went on to give Morgan a frequently used line to discredit the science of climate change; "It used to be called global warming, that wasn't working, then it was called climate change and now actually it is called extreme weather."

Facts First: The terms "global warming" and "climate change" are often used interchangeably but they have different meanings. There has been no change in the usage of the terms over the years, with both terms occurring in in the scientific literature for decades.

"Global warming refers to the long term warming of the planet since the early 20th century," according to NASA, as a result of the increase in fossil fuel emissions accumulating in the atmosphere and enhancing the greenhouse effect.

Climate change, when used in reference to the recent warming trend, refers to the "broad range of global phenomena" that result from the warming, including sea level rise, polar ice loss, shifts in rainfall patterns and extreme weather events, among many others.

The planet is still warming -- and it is getting worse.

Why would the name need to be changed in the first place? Trump says "it wasn't working," most likely trying to imply that the planet wasn't warming so the term had to evolve -- but this couldn't be further from the truth.

Facts First: The planet has continued to warm, and the rate of that warming has been increasing. The past five years have all been the warmest on record for the planet, dating back to 1880, and 18 of the hottest 19 years have occurred since 2001.

As for extreme weather, that is again, a different term altogether that refers to weather conditions that are far beyond the normal ranges, from stronger hurricanes to longer droughts.

The terms are not being changed -- they are all used and they are all valid. In fact, they can all be used in a sentence to sum this all up.

Global warming, caused by the ever-increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (for which the United States has contributed the highest amount of), is causing climate change in a number of ways, including increasing the frequency and severity of many types of extreme weather around the world.

This should be printed out and delivered to every US citizen every time Trump speaks about this subject.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Was voter suppression at work in the European elections?

The day after people voted in the European elections, I posted a piece recording how hundreds of EU citizens were turned away from polling stations and denied a vote in that contest.

The media reported that people had turned up at their local polling station only to find their name had been crossed off the register. It became a common theme across the UK, with the hashtag #DeniedMyVote trending on Twitter as it was flooded with accounts of EU citizens being prevented from voting after confusion among election officials and administrative errors.

Now the Guardian has revealed new data showing that as few as one in 10 EU citizens were able to cast their vote in some areas of Britain. Despite this, the government has refused to heed calls for a public inquiry into why so many EU citizens said they had been denied a vote in an election that turned into a proxy ballot on Brexit:

Figures obtained by the Guardian from local authorities across the country suggest there was a lack of awareness among EU citizens that they needed to notify their councils that they were going to vote in the UK and not in their home country by 7 May. They had to do this using a form known as a UC1.

The Guardian asked more than 50 councils how many UC1 forms had been issued to voters on their register and how many had been returned by the cut-off date.

The return rate for the top 10 local authorities with EU citizens – Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and seven London boroughs – was 21%.

In Birmingham, home to almost 35,000 EU citizens registered to vote, the return of forms was as low as 10.56%.

In Brent in north-west London, which has one of the highest number of EU nationals on the register, only 20.74% of voters who were sent the forms by the council returned them on time.

Kingston upon Thames appears to have had the highest rate of return in the country at 43% but other local authorities were not as successful in getting the message out. Some constituencies outside London had returns as low as 11% and 12%.

This catalogue of errors and administrative incompetence happened despite Electoral Commission warnings after the last EU elections in 2014 that the process needed to be easier for EU citizens. I am not clear exactly what they did to try and change the process, but clearly Government Ministers ignored that advice.

It is also the case that many Britons living abroad who had registered to vote in the UK had also been disenfranchised because their ballot papers had not arrived in time. Where this happens elsewhere it is often described as voter suppression. What would we call it here, when the UK Government refuses to act to enable European citizens to more easily exercise their voting rights?

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

What next for the M4?

Like many in my party, I have long been on record as being opposed to the Newport by-pass, otherwise known as the M4 relief road. It would have been an environmental disaster, a homage to gas guzzling, polluting cars, that would itself, have become congested within years, and which would have compromised five SSSIs.

My other objection was the Cardiff-centric nature of the scheme. The level of congestion and number of business-sapping accidents are as bad on the stretch of the M4 between junctions 37 and 45 as those around Newport, but there is  no sign of a multi-billion pound scheme to tackle those problems. That is because it is not the Cardiff region economy that suffers from delays generated by these incidents.

The future should not be diesel and petrol-centred, but focussed on public transport solutions. Nor can it be built around electric vehicles until the respective governments invest in a network of fast charging points in every community, possibly every street, the longevity of rechargeable batteries is extended and their cost comes down.

Yesterday's decision by the Welsh First Minister is therefore, welcome albeit surprising given the amount of time and money already invested in this scheme. What is disappointing is that he does not appear to have a plan B. Instead, he has proposed setting up a commission of experts to look at problems around Newport. Note that those experts will not be looking at the Margam-Swansea stretch of the M4 - very predictable.

Given that this matter has been under consideration for over twenty years, and that a number of groups have been putting forward different solutions for years, why was an alternative plan not already in place to be announced at the same time as the decision to abandon the M4 extension?

The Welsh Government's approach to this matter has been lackadaisical. Action needs to be taken on both of the congested sections of the M4. We don't need more talk, we need investment in viable, environmentally-friendly alternatives that will reduce congestion, and we need it now.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Nobody here but us chickens

With the Donald Trump state visit ongoing, the United States President continues to tout his view that once the UK has rid itself of the 'shackles' of EU membership, a big trade deal awaits us. What is not clear is who will benefit most from that deal and on what terms.

As I have stated on a number of occasions here, ceasing to be a member of the biggest free trade block in the world, leaves the UK especially vulnerable and with virtually no cards to play in any negotiation. We need them more than they need us.

The food safety standards we currently enjoy and are able to enforce as a member of the EU for example, will suddenly become negotiable. That is why the Independent report on a recent Channel Four Dispatches programme is especially disturbing.

They have exposed the risk of food poisoning because of “dangerous” practices at a US chicken factory, highlighting the danger of cross-contamination with the deadly bacteria salmonella and campylobacter, because of poor standards outlawed by the EU:

As normal in the US, the chicken is washed in chemicals – a practice banned in the UK under EU law because scientists fear it does not remove bacteria and simply masks safety failures.

Nevertheless, the US has made clear it will demand the UK accept chemical-washed poultry in any trade deal – and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, has suggested a ban will be impossible.

The expose by the Dispatches programme – ahead of exploratory trade talks between Theresa May and Donald Trump on his state visit – uncovered:
This is not just about giving consumers choice as the US Ambassador argues, this is about basic hygiene and protecting consumers from dangerous food handling practices. Is this really what people voted for in 2016?

Monday, June 03, 2019

Brexit reality on 'taking control' hitting home

Just what awaits the UK on the other side of Brexit was made clear by the US Ambassador in interview yesterday, when he underlined just how weak our negotiating position will be in future trade deals once we cease to be a member of the World's biggest free trade area.

As the Guardian reports, Woody Johnson suggested the UK would need to allow US agricultural products, including chlorinated chicken, on to the UK market as part of any post-Brexit trade deal, as well as US private sector involvement in the NHS:

The US ambassador, who is a close friend of the US president, said every area of the UK economy would be up for discussion when the two sides brokered a trade deal.

Asked if the NHS was likely to form part of trade negotiations, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I think the entire economy, in a trade deal, all things that are traded would be on the table.” Asked if that specifically meant healthcare, he said: “I would think so.”

His comments prompted an alarmed reaction from opposition politicians. The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, said the comments were deeply concerning.

“The ambassador’s comments are terrifying and show that a real consequence of a no-deal Brexit, followed by a trade deal with Trump, will be our NHS up for sale. This absolutely should not be on the table,” he said. “Nigel Farage and the Tories want to rip apart our publicly-funded and provided NHS. Labour will always defend it.”

Johnson was also pressed on whether the US would seek a loosening of agricultural standards, including the importation of chlorinated chicken. He said the products should be offered to British consumers who could decide whether to buy them.

“There will have to be some deal where you give the British people a choice,” he said. “American products can come over … but if the British people like it, they can buy it; if they don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it.”

In his Sunday interview, the US ambassador also issued a veiled warning to May’s successor over the involvement of Huawei in UK infrastructure, saying he would “caution” the British government not to make any rushed decisions.

As part of the EU, the UK is strong enough to resist these sort of undesirable deals, however once we have left we will no longer have that protection. We will be at the mercy of the sort of predatory trade deals being mooted by the US Ambassador.

As for the NHS, the Brexit Party still do not have a manifesto, but leading members, including Farage, have indicated in the past that private companies should have a bigger stake in delivering our state health services, including insurance companies. The fact that one of his biggest allies, and donors, runs an insurance company is entirely coincidental.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Cleaning up after Boris

Donald Trump is on his way to the UK and, inevitably, he has decided to mix it up a bit before he gets here, arguing that we should send Nigel Farage in to debate Brexit, opt for a no-deal exit and keep our £39 billion and, of course endorsing Boris Johnson as the next Prime Minister.

What puzzles me most about the Boris phenomenon is not his popularity - everybody loves a buffoon - but why so many Tory MPs, who have worked closely with him, are prepared to back him for the leadership of their party. His record as Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary is so pitted with gaffes, mistakes and wasteful decisions that nobody should entrust him with that level of responsibility again.

Over at the Independent, their political correspondent, Benjamin Kentish, outlines some of the facts behind that judgement. He quotes a former Foreign Office Minister, who served under Boris, as saying that clearing up after Boris Johnson's gaffes as foreign secretary was a "full-time activity":

Sir Alan Duncan, the Europe minister, said there were "quite a lot of consequences" of Mr Johnson's failure to display a "conventional diplomatic manner" during his two years at the Foreign Office.

He claimed that one country's foreign minister had suggested he was Mr Johnson's "pooper scooper" because he had cleared up his mess so many times.

Mr Johnson's two years as foreign secretary were marred by a series of gaffes, including wrongly claiming that a British citizen imprisoned in Iran had been training journalists in the country, describing Africa as "that country" and suggesting Libya had a bright future if it simply "cleared the dead bodies away".

On top of this we have Boris' appalling record as Mayor of London, including money wasted on useless water cannons and the fiasco of the garden bridge.  As was evidenced from the recent TV programme filming behind the scenes at the Foreign Office, Boris has no grasp of the detail needed to deal with other countries, often embarrassed us abroad and struggled with complex briefs.

Surely Tory MPs will see through this and not put him amongst the top two candidates to face the membership.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Lords gravy train must come to an end

Today's Guardian carries the barely surprising news that one in five members of the House of Lords are working as consultants or advisers to private businesses at the same time as serving in parliament.

According to their report, an analysis of the Register of Lords’ Interests shows 169 peers reported working as advisers earlier this year, with more than a dozen registering that they were also paid by foreign governments on top of the expenses they are entitled to as peers.

They say that the consultancies range from a former Conservative MP advising the company of a Romanian businessman facing extradition, through to a former chief of defence staff who advises the government of Bahrain. The worlds of finance, energy, mining and defence are extensively represented among peers’ clients.

The reason I am not surprised at this is because the House of Lords is effectively a club for retired politicians. It does a very valuable job in revising and scrutinising legislation, but it has never been a full-time occupation, it is poorly paid by Central London standards, members are unaccountable and there are far too many of them.

If you want members of a second chamber to behave as professional politician then abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a directly elected second chamber with far fewer members.

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