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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

United States Congress steps into our Brexit mess

Just when they thought they were home and dry with a no-deal Brexit and a US trade deal to back it up, members of Boris Johnson's inner circle must have hung their heads in despair at the latest obstacle to stand in their way.

As the Guardian reports, the US congressional leaders and diplomats have warned that any future US-UK trade deal would almost certainly be blocked by the US Congress if Brexit affects the Irish border and jeopardises peace in Northern Ireland.

The paper says that Boris Johnson has presented a trade deal with the US as a way of offsetting the economic costs of leaving the EU, and Donald Trump promised the two countries could strike “a very substantial trade agreement” that would increase trade “four or five times”.

But all the indications are that Trump would not be able to push an agreement through a hostile Congress, where there would be strong bipartisan opposition to any UK trade deal in the event of a threat to the 1998 Good Friday agreement, and to the open border between the two Irelands:

Johnson’s rise to power, and his demand for the EU to drop the backstop, which is intended to safeguard the open border after Brexit, has galvanised determination in Congress to make a stand in defence of the landmark accord, to which the US is guarantor.

“The American dimension to the Good Friday agreement is indispensable,” said Richard Neal, who is co-chair of the 54-strong Friends of Ireland caucus in Congress, and also chairs the powerful House ways and means committee, with the power to hold up a trade deal indefinitely.

“We oversee all trade agreements as part of our tax jurisdiction,” Neal, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, said in a phone interview. He pointed out that such a complex trade deal could take four or five years, even without the Northern Ireland issue.

“I would have little enthusiasm for entertaining a bilateral trade agreement with the UK, if they were to jeopardise the agreement.”

Pete King, the Republican co-chair of the Friends of Ireland group, said the threat to abandon the backstop and endanger the open border was a “needless provocation”, adding that his party would have no compunction about defying Trump over the issue.

“I would think anyone who has a strong belief in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement the open border would certainly be willing to go against the president,” King said.

In addition, in the event of a hard Brexit, in the absence of guarantees for the Northern Ireland agreement, the strength of sentiment among Irish Americans – a tenth of the population, many of them in swing states – could make it an issue in next year’s presidential and congressional elections.

It seems that Boris's 'get-out-of-jail' card, his friendship with Trump, will not prove to the be the holy grail he had hoped after all.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

PM Johnson sets the tone on violence against women

It didn't take long for Boris Johnson to make his mark on government, even if that is entirely negative and reactionary. The Independent tells us that the Prime Minister's new Brexit chief wants to scrap Theresa May’s commitment to protect British workers’ rights, and has suggested Brexit is an opportunity to escape the EU’s “heavy labour market regulation”. And then there is the attitude towards women.

As others have pointed out, the man now installed in Number Ten Downing Street,who had police called to his London flat following a loud row with his girlfriend, has now decided to drop the investigation into a Tory minister who grabbed a female protester by the neck and pushed her against a pillar at a black tie dinner. It really is not a good look for his government.

The Independent recalls that Mark Field was suspended from his job at the foreign office while a Whitehall investigation was carried out into the incident in the City of London, when he physically removed Greenpeace activist Janet Barker from the room.

Video footage of the event showed Mr Field pushing the protester against a pillar and then marching her outside while grabbing her by the neck, after several activists tried to disrupt Philip Hammond’s Mansion House speech.

At the time, Mr Field said he was acting “instinctively” as he was afraid the protesters might be armed, but apologised for his actions and referred himself for investigation.

Whatever the Prime Minister's reasons, the message his decision sends on the government's attitude towards violence against women is appalling.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The impact of Brexit on our national finances and our health service

When I read that the Brexit Party bus had come off the road and been abandoned in the middle of Powys over the weekend, my first thought was that it was a pity it did not have the aborted promise of an extra £350m a week for the NHS painted on the side.

Three years on and that promise has not just been discredited and shown to be a lie, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Brexit will in fact be disastrous for our health service and for the public finances on which it depends for its funding.

As this article in the Independent points out, the presence of EU doctors and nurses is worth more than £3 billion to the UK economy over five years. That sum represents the taxes paid by an average of more than 11,000 doctors and 31,000 nurses as well as savings on the cost of training British replacements.

The figures were released by the medical firm Medbelle amid concerns that the ending of free movement of labour after Brexit may deter skilled workers from the continent, such as doctors, from coming to Britain:

"Everyone working within the UK medical profession, whether NHS or private, knows the huge value that foreign-born doctors and nurses bring to the UK in terms of their experience, wealth of knowledge and support," said Medbelle CEO Daniel Kolb.

"However, an aspect that is often overlooked from the outside is not only how much money EU medical workers contribute to the UK in income tax and social contributions, but also how much the government has saved in terms of education.

“To educate all the EU-born doctors and nurses who came to the UK between 2014 - 2018 would have cost the government over £1.6 billion."

Medbelle's calculations - based on official OECD figures - found the cost of educating 11,159 doctors to replace EU nationals would be more than £425 million.

And educating 31,202 British nurses to fill jobs currently taken by EU nationals would cost a further £1.2 billion, said the company, which provides a "digital hospital" service allowing patients to arrange private treatment through an app.

The company calculated the tax paid by EU national doctors from 2014-18 at £580 million and nurses at £900 million.

Mr Kolb said: "We hope that this study can shine a light on the value of foreign labour in the medical industry, and that those in charge will be adequately prepared to increase funding into medical education to compensate after Brexit.”

Put that on the side of your bus, Boris.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Has the tipping point on climate change already passed us by?

With local councils and national parliaments combining to declare a climate emergency, it is clear that many of us are becoming more and more anxious about our planet's future and whether we still have time to save it.

What is clear is that the really big drivers are out of our hands. One of those is the future of the Amazon rain forest, which acts as the biggest carbon-sink on the planet and, if preserved and allowed to re-establish itself, could form a significant brake to global warning. Alas, as this Guardian article explains, it may already be too late to save this precious resource.

The paper reports that deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has surged above three football fields a minute, according to the latest government data, pushing the world’s biggest rainforest closer to a tipping point beyond which it cannot recover:

The sharp rise – following year-on-year increases in May and June – confirms fears that president Jair Bolsonaro has given a green light to illegal land invasion, logging and burning.

Clearance so far in July has hit 1,345 sq km, a third higher than the previous monthly record under the current monitoring system by the Deter B satellite system, which started in 2015.

With five days remaining, this is on course to be the first month for several years in which Brazil loses an area of forest bigger than Greater London.

The steady erosion of tree cover weakens the role of the rainforest in stabilising the global climate. Scientists warn that the forest is in growing danger of degrading into a savannah, after which its capacity to absorb carbon will be severely diminished, with consequences for the rest of the planet.

The attitude of the Brazilian government to this devastating activity is a disgrace. They appear to be turning a blind eye to this illegal logging.

Brazil is in the process of negotiating a trade agreement with the European Union, which will massively benefit their economy. Isn't it time those negotiations were put on hold until we have proof that action is being taken to protect the rain forest?

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The strange priorities of one of Boris' new ministers

It is intriguing to learn that whilst the country is facing an existential crisis over Parliament's inability to resolve Brexit, that one of Boris Johnson's new ministers has altogether different priorities.

As this article explains, Jacob Rees Mogg, the honourable member for the eighteenth century, has already started to make a mark on his new department as Leader of the House. He has issued a 'style guide' to his new ministerial staff, which includes a demand to only use imperial measurements:

The guide includes a list of banned words and phrases, including "very", "ongoing", "invest (in schools etc)", "disappointment" and "I note/ understand your concerns."

Meanwhile, new Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has imposed a two page limit on the rail documents he'll be expected to read in his new job.

An internal email seen by the Yorkshire Post saw staff warned Shapps will "pay attention to the font sizes and margins".

Other words on Rees-Mogg's naughty list are "equal", "unacceptable", "speculate" and "no longer fit for purpose."

Staff were also ordered to refer to all non-titled males as "Esq." and to insert a double space after full stops.

And the "honourable member for the 18th Century" demanded staff use imperial measurements - most of which were phased out 50 years ago.

So that's all of the UK's problems solved then?

Friday, July 26, 2019

Will there be a backlash against Welsh Government changes to bus passes?

As the UK Government has found out with TV licences for the over 75s, it is harder to take a benefit away than it is to grant it in the first place. It is a lesson that the Welsh Government may also have to learn as they seek to rebalance their budget, by amending the terms of the many 'freebies' they have introduced over the last 20 years.

Amongst these benefits we can include free prescriptions, free entry to museums, free swimming for some age groups, free school breakfasts and of course free bus travel for the over-60s.

As this article makes clear, the cost of the free bus pass is rising, with 880,000 people expected to be eligible by 2021. According to a recent consultation, pass-holders represent about 47% of bus journeys in Wales and there were about 730,000 passes in circulation at the end of 2018.

Bus firms are reimbursed on the basis of an adult single fare, according to a White Paper published last year. Figures from 2016 showed the cost of providing free bus travel up to that point was in the region of £840m.

I suppose the cost could have been even higher if it were not for cuts in the availability of buses, especially on rural or uneconomic routes.

Now the Welsh Government are proposing to increase the age one becomes eligible for the pass to the state pension age. In doing so they will effectively disenfranchise many people who might have used this benefit.

There has already been some backlash against this proposal and it will be interesting to see whether that is reflected in responses to the consultation once the legislation is published. However, aren't Welsh Ministers just deferring the problem?

The numbers involved will remain the same, it is just that the recipients will have to wait a bit longer and that means that the projected costs will still apply, except in a different budget year. If the government really want to curtail costs they may also have to look at imposing an administration charge, or even insist on a small payment for each bus journey.

That is a debate that will need to be had. Either way, this announcement effectively ends the era of the freebie. How will the Welsh Government distinguish itself from the rest of the UK now?

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Reality of a hung Parliament to confront Boris on day one

Boris Johnson may have the cabinet he wanted, packed out with Brexiteers and purged of any dissenting voices, he may have installed the core of the Vote Leave campaign in his private office, but he still has to confront the reality of a hung Parliament.

One of the first decisions he will have to make is what price he needs to pay for an effective majority on key votes, because as sure as night follows day, the DUP are going to come knocking on the door of Number Ten.

As the Independent reports, Democratic Unionist Party Leader, Arlene Foster has revealed that she spoke with the incoming prime minister soon after his victory was declared – and immediately put him on notice that here party will demand more cash in “the coming weeks” to continue propping up the Conservatives in power:

The DUP leader noted that the £1bn-plus confidence and supply agreement – signed with Theresa May, to deliver her a Commons majority two years ago – “remains”. But she added: “That agreement included a review between each parliamentary session.

“This will take place over the coming weeks and will explore the policy priorities of both parties for the next parliamentary session.”

The DUP is widely expected to demand an even higher price to renew the agreement, as well as action to thwart prosecutions of soldiers investigated for alleged wrongdoing during the Troubles.

Mr Johnson will need the support of the DUP even more than his predecessor did, as even the flimsy working majority she negotiated with the Northern Ireland party crumbles.

He will inherit a majority of just two – including the 10 DUP MPs – which will fall to only one if, as expected, the Liberal Democrats win the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election next week.

Some of his aides are already wargaming a snap autumn general election, as the likely only way to meet his pledge to leave the EU on Halloween, “deal or no deal”.

Just how far is Johnson prepared to secure the DUP's support? It could be a very interesting summer indeed.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

How long can Boris last?

I am not one of those who thinks that Boris Johnson will come unstuck quickly, ending up as the shortest serving Prime Minister, but I do think that he will be facing an uphill struggle to deliver any of his promises on Brexit.

As the Guardian reports, Johnson has been put on notice by rebel Conservatives that he will not survive long as prime minister unless he drops his no-deal Brexit agenda. Rory Stewart, a former leadership rival, has joined Philip Hammond and David Gauke in telling Johnson he would quit the cabinet before the new prime minister takes office rather than serve under him.

The paper says that in a further ominous move for Johnson, Sir Alan Duncan, a Foreign Office minister, resigned dramatically to launch an attempt to test whether the new prime minister could command a majority among MPs.

They add that Duncan’s proposal for an emergency House of Commons debate on support for Johnson was turned down by the Speaker, but it was a sign that some Conservatives are already organising to make life difficult for the new incumbent of No 10:

Duncan said he had “very grave concerns that Johnson flies by the seat of his pants” and branded his former boss “haphazard and ramshackle”, but publicly insisted he was trying to be helpful to the new prime minister by ending speculation about whether MPs supported the new incumbent in No 10.

The motion stated: “That this House has considered the merits of the newly chosen leader of the Conservative party, and supports his wish to form a government.”

However, it opened up the possibility that Johnson might fail to demonstrate he had the support of parliament, leaving Theresa May potentially unable to recommend him as her successor to the Queen on Wednesday.

Conservative backbenchers fighting no deal are not planning to bring down Johnson immediately, with one serious critic of the frontrunner saying the party “would take a very, very dim view of getting rid of him before he has done anything yet”.

But several Conservative MPs said they would regard Johnson’s first speech to the nation and cabinet appointments as a test of whether he was capable of reaching out across parliament to find a majority for a plan to leave the EU that can find approval from Eurosceptics and more moderate Brexit supporters.

If he does not, then organisation will start again in earnest to prevent him pursuing a no-deal Brexit, with some senior Tories already sending out feelers about the possibility of a “national unity” government with opposition MPs.

All the signs are that Johnson will face the same obstacles as Theresa May in delivering Brexit along with a divided party determined to frustrate his fall back position of a no-deal Brexit.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

750 people denied a vote by ID pilot

The Guardian reports that About 750 people were denied a vote at May’s local elections because of a controversial trial scheme to oblige people in some areas to show ID before casting a ballot.

A study by the Electoral Commission found up to 2,083 people were initially turned away for not having the necessary ID with them, and as many as 758 never returned. As a proportion of all votes cast this ranged from 0.7% in two areas, Craven and Pendle, to 0.03% in Mid Sussex:

While ministers have said compulsory voter ID is necessary to avoid fraud, critics say there is little evidence of voter impersonation, while ID requirements can particularly put off more vulnerable groups such as older people or those with disabilities. The report said charities that had raised concerns about the scheme represented people with learning disabilities, as well as those without a fixed address, and the BAME, LGBT, and Gypsies and traveller communities.

The commission said that in Derby, one of the trial areas, there was a strong correlation between the numbers of people denied a vote in particular wards and the proportion of that ward’s population who were from an Asian background. However, in Pendle this correlation was much weaker, it said.

The study said that overall it was impossible to draw definitive conclusions from the pilots – an initial trial in five areas took place at the 2018 local elections – about what might happen if they were used nationally or particularly at a general election, where a much greater range of people would be taking part.

While the trials showed the schemes seemed to make people believe the voting process was more secure, a series of factors would need to be considered, including what sort of ID was needed.

The study also said opinion polls among people who did not vote showed 1% of them said it was because they did not have the right ID. These findings and the concerns about access to ID among some groups “raise questions about the effects of an ID requirement at future elections”, the report said.

Once more, there is no evidence to support this trial, but it is succeeding in suppressing votes. Was that the intention all along?

Monday, July 22, 2019

The impact of a No-deal Brexit on farming

With the Royal Welsh Show starting today, it was inevitable that the BBC and other media would start to talk about agricultural matters, but this year the focus on the impact of a no-deal Brexit is particularly important.

The BBC report on the view of FUW president, Glyn Roberts, that there could be "civil unrest" in rural Wales if the next prime minister opts for a no-deal Brexit. They say that the Farmers' Union of Wales has predicted protests, while NFU Cymru say it would not rule out campaigning to stop Brexit entirely.

They were speaking in light of a new report, commissioned by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), Quality Meat Scotland and Meat Promotion Wales which suggests exports to Europe, currently the destination for more than nine-tenths of overseas trade for Welsh producers, could fall by about 92%. The report estimates this would lead to a 24% fall in the price of lamb at a time of year when thousands of lambs are coming on to the market every day.

With Boris Johnson due to assume the role of Prime Minister later this week, this become a real and existential threat to Welsh farming.  Given the willingness of the Tory candidate to consider a no-deal Brexit, let us hope that farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire remember this when they cast their vote in the by-election on 1 August.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Home Office in cash-for-passports scandal

I have recently finished reading Moneyland by Oliver Bullough, which goes into some detail as to how money is stolen from poor countries and stashed off-shore in tax havens, out of reach of those who might want to repatriate it or demand taxes on the money and assets.

In the book, Bullough shows how some countries sell passports to very rich people to enable them to remain out of reach of their home governments, and to facilitate their purchase of property, where their ill-gotten gains can be put to work. He also points out that the UK has a reputation as facilitating this sort of activity, despite the government's rhetoric of fighting corruption and money-laundering.

I was interested therefore in reading this article in the Sunday Times, in which they reveal that Russian and Chinese millionaires can buy access to British passports by exploiting a flawed Home Office scheme fast-tracking the super-rich.

They say that legal and financial advisers were filmed boasting about their role in securing scores of “golden visas” for millionaire foreign clients and offering to omit sensitive details from immigration officials, such as links to the inner circle of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and to the Chinese military:

The advisers told an undercover reporter they had helped secure golden visas for a member of the Gadaffi family, the son of a corrupt Thai government minister, an Egyptian charged with corruption, an Eritrean with possible links to military deals in Angola and millionaires from Iran and Iraq whose businesses were affected by sanctions. One said it was “easy-peasy” to get around Home Office anti- corruption checks, alleging that the officials who did the vetting were untrained school leavers who used Google searches. Some boasted of near-perfect records in helping clients through the process.

Secret filming by The Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches exposed how the Home Office conducts scant checks on wealthy foreigners who stump up £2m to obtain citizenship through the UK’s “golden visa” scheme.

The paper adds that unlike other nations, the UK does not ask visa applicants to pay any of the £2m sum to the government or stipulate that the money should create British jobs or boost areas of deprivation. It does not stop investors taking the money back offshore after they have secured the right to live permanently in Britain.

Dame Margaret Hodge MP, the former chairwoman of the public accounts select committee, is absolutely right when she says that: “It is scandalous how the hostile environment is treating asylum seekers in my constituency in a terrible way yet we are welcoming with open arms dirty money into Britain. We will never sustain economic prosperity on the back of dirty money.”

That the UK should be facilitating this sort of activity is scandalous.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Abolition of TV licences for over-75s to backfire on Tories

The Mirror reports that the failure of the Tories to keep their promise and retain free TV licence betrayal for the over-75s could add another £1.6 billion to the welfare bill.

They say that George Osborne, who was Chancellor 2015 when a deal was stitched up, believed forcing the BBC to fund the lifeline would save the Government £745million a year from 2020. But the Treasury’s own watchdog yesterday revealed the move could backfire - ultimately costing more than it saves:

The Office for Budget Responsibility confirmed spending on Pension Credit was set to rise because of the move to restrict free licences to only those who receive the benefit.

Many who are eligible but do not currently take up the benefit are now likely to do so amid a planned advertising blitz by the BBC to raise awareness of entitlement, the OBR said.

The Department for Work and Pensions should be braced for a surge in demand for Pension Credit, it suggests.

OBR chairman Robert Chote said it “illustrates the dangers of unintended consequences when governments come up with clever ways to save money”.

Its fiscal risks report says: “DWP estimates there were around 470,000 people aged 75 or over who were entitled to the guarantee element of pension credit in 2016-17 but who did not receive it, almost 40 per cent of the total number entitled.

“These had an average entitlement of £65 a week, resulting in around £1.6billion of unclaimed benefit among this age group. So around half of that group would need to start claiming to wipe out the expected savings from transferring responsibility to the BBC and the BBC cutting its domestic spending by a corresponding amount.”

While “very large increases in take-up are unlikely”, the Corporation’s plan to publicise the availability of Pension Credit will lead to more people taking it up.

It adds: “It is relatively unusual for a government to delegate parameters of welfare policy to a broadcasting company in an attempt to save money, and it is perhaps not surprising that this may have unintended consequences.

“The BBC’s decision to means-test free TV licences via a link to pension credit receipt may well raise welfare spending by more than it reduces BBC spending ... The net effect on the public finances would therefore be to push the budget deficit up not down.”

Stressing the move posed a fresh risk to public coffers, the OBR goes on: “The likely cost of the BBC’s recent decision to means-test free TV licences for the over-75s by linking it to pension credit – thereby potentially prompting a material number of those currently not taking it up to do so – poses a fiscal risk that we had not previously envisaged.

Unforeseen consequences can be a real downer. There is though still time for the UK Government to do a U-turn and save itself some money.

Friday, July 19, 2019

How the Tories are abandoning the environmental gains made by Lib Dems in government

The strong focus by Liberal Democrat ministers on environmental issues during the coalition government was all but abandoned once the Tories got into power by themselves in 2015. So much so that new government data shows that efforts to end fuel poverty and energy waste by making the UK’s draughty homes more efficient have collapsed by almost 85%.

As the Guardian says, the report, published on Thursday, shows that the number of energy efficiency upgrades undertaken each month has fallen to 10,000 on average for the six months to the end of May. This compares with an average of 65,000 a month in 2014:

The latest figures show that in May about 10,000 properties benefited from energy efficiency measures, such as loft insulation or boiler upgrades, down sharply from about 30,000 in the same month in 2015 and 2016.

At this rate it would take 96 years for the government to reach its own targets to reduce fuel poverty, according to the charity National Energy Action.

Peter Smith, a director at the fuel-poverty campaign group, said the progress was “a fraction” of what was required to ensure 1.2m homes are renovated each year until 2035.

The paper says that there was a stark warning from MPs last week that the UK has “no chance” of meeting its climate-crisis targets without a major overhaul of energy-efficiency programmes:

A select committee report found that public investment in energy efficiency has shrunk in recent years, even though it is the cheapest way to cut carbon emissions.

It said the government risks undermining its own climate targets unless it treats energy efficiency as a national infrastructure priority.

Rachel Reeves, the chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee, said ministers have “continued to sit on their hands” despite the consensus support for energy efficiency.

“If the government lacks the political will to deliver energy efficiency improvements, how can we expect it to get on with the costlier actions needed to tackle climate change?” she said.

The report blamed a lack of public spending for the falling number of home insulation installations, which have plummeted by 95% from 2012.

It is dispiriting to see all the good work put in by Liberal Democrats ministers unravelled in this way.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Tory hypocrisy over votes for 16 and 17 year olds

It was not so long ago that I berated the then Secretary of State for Wales in the Welsh Assembly chamber over the failure of the UK Government to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the EU referendum. My argument was that the 2016 referendum was more about their future than my own and that they should have a say in it.

Alas, the Tories have failed to follow the example of Scotland, and soon, Wales, in allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote, effectively disenfranchising a group of citizens who could well be paying tax, are allowed to marry and join the armed forces and are treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

That, I suppose is their right. They are sticking to their own beliefs and policies. Or are they? As this article in the Independent reports, under-18s are helping to pick the next Tory leader and prime minister.

The paper says that Conservatives offer membership to people aged under 23 for just £5 a year – with “full voting rights” given to any members aged 15 or over. Jeremy Hunt has even released a video featuring a 17-year-old Conservative member who had cast his vote in the leadership race to “battle that stereotype that our age group are uninformed”.

In addition there are a string of local Tory websites saying that there is “no upper or lower age limit on membership, although children under the age of 15 cannot be enrolled as full voting members”.

Just how hypocritical this is can be gauged from the fact that a cross-party bill to lower the UK voting age failed in the Commons in 2017 after Tory MPs were accused of talking it out. Successive Conservative prime ministers have spoken out against change, with Theresa May saying: “You have to pick a point at which you think it is right for the voting age to be. I continue to think it is right for it to be 18.”

And, last year, her de-facto deputy, David Lidington, told MPs that under-18s lacked the “maturity and responsibility” required to vote.

One rule for the Tories, another for the rest of us, I suppose.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Next year's summer holidays could be expensive

If Boris Johnson and his Brexiteer supporters believe that taking us out of Europe without a deal is going to secure a victory in a General Election, then they may well have failed to account for the impact of such an approach on ordinary voters.

One such consequence could be the end of cheap foreign holidays, with the Independent reporting that the average cost of staying at popular European destinations could soar by £225 per person in such a scenario.

This became clearer as Tory leadership hopefuls Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt came under fire over hardline promises to scrap the Irish backstop, which sent the pound plummeting amid growing concern about a no-deal outcome. As a result Britons buying foreign currency ahead of summer holidays got less for their money due to sterling plunging to a six-month low against the euro and a 27-month low against the dollar.

Analysis released by the People’s Vote campaign suggested that the combined increase in the cost of flights, hotels, insurance and mobile roaming fees could add £225 a person onto the cost of holidays to the most popular resorts in Spain and Greece following a disorderly withdrawal from the EU, which could see the pound reach parity with the euro.

What is becoming clear is that the only people who will benefit from Brexit - deal or no deal - are the very rich, those who can afford to buy Maltese passports, whose money is stashed abroad, or who have already set up trading funds in European countries to protect their clients.

Brexit is not so much about us taking control, but the affluent taking control of their money and keeping it away from European regulations.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Corbyn under fire

It takes a special talent for an opposition leader, faced with a divided, chaotic and incompetent government, to dominate the headlines with his own internal party troubles, rather than with the sort of scathing and constructive criticisms of the ruling party he should be leading on. But that is where Jeremy Corbyn finds himself this morning, with no sign of the turmoil within the Labour Party over anti-Semitism and Brexit coming to an end any time soon.

As the Guardian reports, the Labour leader has come under renewed pressure as more than 200 former and current staff challenged him to resign if he could not renew trust in Labour party’s dealings with employees:

Labour is to hold an extraordinary shadow cabinet meeting next Monday to address concerns on antisemitism and Corbyn will address MPs on the issue on the same day.

The party leader and his shadow ministers are raking over the fallout from the BBC’s Panorama programme on Labour antisemitism. Labour’s leaders in the House of Lords issued a veiled challenge to Corbyn’s authority on Monday, warning him that without decisive leadership antisemitism was a “cancer that will continue to grow”.

The four senior peers wrote to Corbyn with an offer to establish a panel to review the allegations of former party staffers made on Panorama and to “provide advice and support on how a properly independent complaints process could be set up and run”.

The peers – Angela Smith, the party’s leader in the Lords, her deputy, Dianne Hayter, the chairman of the peers’ group, Toby Harris, and Tommy McAvoy, the chief whip – set out their view amid consternation about the Panorama allegations that the leader’s office interfered in complaints about antisemitism. Eight former employees appeared on the programme to discuss the handling of complaints. The party denies the allegations and complained to the BBC about the programme.

Corbyn's problem of course is that instead of responding to the allegations in the Panorama programme, his staff decided to attack the messengers. As a result, anger about the Panorama programme, and the party’s response to it, spilled over from a meeting of MPs on Monday:

The chair of the parliamentary Labour party, John Cryer, said attacking former Labour staff who appeared on the documentary was “a gross misjudgment” from the party. “The bottom line is we have got racists in our party and they are not being dealt with,” he said.

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, told the meeting he endorsed Cryer’s view and that the party should be as transparent as possible with the Equality and Human Rights Council’s investigation.

“Throw open the books, throw open the files, and access to any member of staff,” he said. “We cannot circle the wagons.”

In their letter, the four Labour peers say of antisemitism in the party: “It is now a toxic and endemic problem that we have failed to eradicate.

“It is deeply saddening, but not surprising, that three of our valued colleagues recently resigned the Labour Lords whip. The scale of abuse that they and others have suffered is heartbreaking.”

They also criticise the party’s “heartbreaking” reaction to the Panorama allegations. They say: “Whilst there may be genuine concerns about the making of the programme, the accounts of members and former staff [were] powerful and shaming. We understand that any employer requires former staff not to disclose sensitive data, but non-disclosure agreements should never be used to silence criticism or to avoid embarrassment – especially by the Labour party.”

It appears that Labour faces its own summer of discontent, effectively neutralising it as an opposition party.

Monday, July 15, 2019

One rule for nuclear.....

The Guardian reports that the government is to set out plans to resuscitate the UK’s struggling nuclear ambitions with a new scheme which would leave taxpayers liable for rising costs or delays.

They say that the funding model, expected this week, could help bankroll the multibillion pound plans for a follow-on to EDF Energy’s Hinkley Point C project in Somerset, which ministers aim to build at the Sizewell site in Suffolk.

It could also resurrect the dormant plans for a £16bn new nuclear reactor at the Wylfa project in North Wales, which fell apart last year due to the high costs of nuclear construction:

Senior nuclear industry sources have told government officials and investors that the proposed finance framework, known as a regulated asset base (RAB) model, could lead to lower costs for consumers.

The plans would hand developers an upfront regulated return on their investment at each new phase of the project. This could encourage more investment from infrastructure and pension funds and better borrowing terms for the developer.

Government officials are under pressure to find a new way to finance nuclear projects after the National Audit Office condemned the 35-year deal to support the Hinkley Point project through energy bills at a cost of £92.50 for every megawatt-hour of electricity it produces.

The average electricity price in the UK last year was between £55 and £65 per megawatt-hour.

The watchdog accused ministers of putting energy bill payers on the hook for a “risky and expensive” project which offers “uncertain strategic and economic benefits”.

The new financing plan has already raised concerns that applying the Tideway model to a nuclear project that costs £20bn and takes around a decade to build could leave taxpayers exposed to a far higher financial risk.

Nuclear projects have suffered high-profile delays and multibillion-pound cost overruns in recent years, making them almost impossible to finance without state intervention.

What is particularly interesting about this model is that it does not appear to apply to other energy projects. In particular, the tidal lagoon planned for Swansea Bay was rejected by the UK Government as too expensive, and yet if this model was applied to it, then it and many others would be built, making a significant contribution to tackling climate change.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Labour's anti-Semitism row deepens

It is al kicking off in the Labour Party, with the Observer reporting that the Labour high command is to be sued by former employees who broke cover last week to criticise the party’s handling of cases of alleged antisemitism in a dramatic escalation of the row engulfing Jeremy Corbyn’s party:

Two of the whistleblowers who featured in last week’s explosive BBC Panorama programme entitled Is Labour Anti-Semitic? – Sam Matthews and Louise Withers Green – contacted the Observer last night to say they had instructed the prominent media lawyer Mark Lewis to act on their behalf because they believed the party had defamed them in its response to their claims. Others who spoke to Panorama are also understood to be considering contacting Lewis to represent them in libel actions.

On the evening the programme was aired, a Labour spokesman said: “It appears these disaffected former officials include those who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively to undermine it and have both personal and political axes to grind. This throws into doubt their credibility as sources.”

Lewis, who works for Patron Law, and is well known for his role in pursuing phone-hacking cases and for representing the family of murdered teenager Millie Dowler, said: “It is incredible that after the programme Labour wilfully attacked the whistleblowers, falsely accusing them of making deliberate, malicious representations, and misleading the public, while also calling them disaffected former officials whose credibility as sources was in doubt.”

He added: “These are very serious libels. Those representing the Labour party have acted in a way that set out to destroy the reputations of the whistleblowers. In their effort to destroy these people they have left it for the courts to decide who is telling the truth. It is ironic that the bosses at the workers’ party have decided to go against the workers.”

Labour has raised complaints at the highest level of the BBC about the Panorama programme, in which eight whistleblowers spoke out, claiming it was slanted and unbalanced. The allegations from whistleblowers included claims that key aides, including the director of communications, Seumas Milne, and the general secretary, Jennie Formby, interfered with investigations.

Both Matthews, the party’s former head of disputes and Withers Green, a former disputes officer, decided to break non-disclosure agreements that they were asked to sign when leaving the party last summer. They insisted they decided to speak out in the public interest.

Matthews, who said he was left feeling suicidal because of the pressures placed on him, said last night: “The Labour party is choosing to ignore the central charges of antisemitism raised by myself and other whistleblowers on Panorama, and instead, they have engaged in a concerted campaign to damage my name. I have instructed Mark Lewis to ensure that the defamation and intimidation of whistleblowers is not allowed to continue.”

It is now getting to the stage where this row is effectively crippling to Labour Party's ability to act as an opposition. If this legal action happens then it could embroil the party in further controversy for months to come.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Brexit party declares war on foreign fishermen

A Brexit party MEP took his party's hatred of foreigners to a new low this week, after he called for foreign fishing vessels to be “given the same treatment as the Belgrano”, the Argentinian cruiser sunk by the Royal Navy with the loss of hundreds of lives.

As the Guardian reports, Robert Rowland, a hedge fund manager, made the remarks in a tweet about “the restoration of sovereignty over our waters”, in celebration of a fellow MEP, June Mummery, joining the European parliament’s fisheries committee.

He wrote: “We are behind all our fisherman [sic] and the restoration of sovereignty over our waters. 200 miles of exclusion zone with any foreign fishing vessel given the same treatment as the Belgrano! Well done June. We are 110% behind you and will ensure you give ‘em hell on committee.”

As Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies, who was elected this week to chair the fisheries committee, said, the remarks are effectively “calling for people to be killed, that’s calling for fishermen from another nation to die in our waters. That’s evil. That makes me sick to the stomach.

“Is that the sort of country these people want? Where we actually kill fishermen, who have been doing nothing more than what they have been doing for hundreds of years.”

The paper reports that Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said the “intemperate language” was not helpful.

After Brexit, he said, “we would expect there would be non-UK fishing vessels operating in UK waters, but under conditions determined by the UK, just like any other independent coastal state. The model would be Norway. The EU has a relationship with Norway for 40 years where stocks are jointly managed. The quota shares, which are very important, are agreed annually. It’s a bit like a marriage, there are ups and downs, but every year there is an agreement.”

Not only does the attitude of these Brexit MEPs do no favours to the UK fishing industry, but it underlines the hatred of all things non-British, which appears to lie at the centre of Brexit Party philosophy. This gung-ho attitude does the UK no favours at all.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Action needed on harrassment by MPs

Having just published a novel about a sex-pest politician, I felt that I should comment on this Guardian article, which says that the Commons will vote next week on extending investigations into bullying and harassment by MPs to cover historic allegations. This proposal has emerged after an inquiry reported harrowing details of staff being shouted at or groped, and having heavy office equipment thrown at them:

While the government stressed that the vast majority of MPs did not abuse employees, an official report by barrister Gemma White QC recommended that parliament adopt new employment measures to better protect staff.

One of White’s findings was that former members of staff with grievances should be allowed to make historical complaints against members of parliament. The current system only covers events after the 2017 general election.

Following the publication of the report the leader of the Commons, Mel Stride, announced a debate and vote next Wednesday on modifying the remit of the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS). He said one of the proposed changes would be to extend the system to earlier complaints, which was also recommended by a report into bullying and harassment in parliament by Dame Laura Cox last year.

White’s 55-page report concluded that employees of MPs are in a vulnerable position because they are directly employed and consider any form of complaint as “career suicide”. They also often have strong party and personal loyalties which constitute significant barriers to complaint.

The paper says that parliamentary helplines for bullying and sexual misconduct have received more than 200 calls or emails from staff in each of the last three quarters. However, White’s report shows few MPs have sought help or retraining:

Only 34 out of 650 MPs and 135 out of 3,200 MPs’ staff have attended or signed up to the “valuing everyone” training, designed to support the new behaviour code introduced in July 2018, the report shows. The report calls for a fundamental shift away from regarding MPs as “650 small businesses” with near complete freedom regarding staff.

In a new development, the report calls for each member to be required to adopt and follow employment practices and procedures aligned with those followed in other public sector workplaces.

“This shift must be supported by a properly resourced and staffed department within the House of Commons. It should develop and implement a coherent and robust approach to members’ employment practice and provide support to members and their staff,” the report says.

That so few MPs have taken up the training on offer is disappointing to say the least. The report is absolutely right that employment practices should mirror those outside the House of Commons. That means that managers (the MPs) must be properly trained and resourced. It is the only way to stop this abuse.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Boris Johnson fails his first test of leadership

It is the first duty of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to stand up for our national interest.

Yesterday, Boris Johnson failed the first test as to whether he was capable of standing up for the UK, when he failed to back our ambassador to the United States in the row about his assessment of the Trump administration. As a result the Ambassador's position became untenable and he had no choice but to resign.

Will a Boris Johnson premiership make us a supplicant to Donald Trump? Are we about to become the 51st state of the United States? There are genuine reasons to think that this might be the case.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Will Northern Ireland catch up with the rest of the UK at last?

Despite being a strong supporter of devolution, I actually have no problem with the House of Commons voting to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK on same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

As the Guardian reports, both votes came at the culmination of long campaigns by backbench MPs, who said the government’s argument that the changes could only be made by the devolved Northern Irish government was defunct, given it has been suspended amid political deadlock since the start of 2017.

In fact, many of those arguing against the two clauses last night, on the grounds that they would drive “a coach and horses through the principle of devolution”, belong to one of the parties responsible for the current deadlock. It seemed to me that for some the argument was not so much one of protecting devolved rights, as using that as an excuse to stop much-needed social reforms.

And it is not as if last night's votes do undermine the devolution settlement. There will only be automatic change in the law within three months if the devolved government remains stalled. If and when the Northern Ireland’s executive is revived, it can then approve or repeal the measure.

The key argument for me, on this particular point, was made by the same-sex marriage clause's sponsor, the Labour MP Conor McGinn, who said that deferred or delayed rights are rights denied. The people of Northern Ireland have waited long enough for equality with the UK mainland. They should not have to wait a further indefinite period while their politicians get their act together.

And who knows, last night's vote may be the catalyst that gets the parties back around the table to finally restore the power-sharing executive.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Lambs to the slaughter

In an article that will have particular resonance in Wales, the Independent reports on a warning from the head of the National Union of Farmers that a no-deal Brexit would be “absolutely disastrous” for agriculture in the UK – leading to the mass slaughter of lambs and many British agriculture workers going out of business.

Minette Batters has warned that the UK is unable to eat the amount of lamb it produces and depends on trade relations with France, which buys 40 per cent of the nation’s sheep meat, to sell on the product:

If British farmers were unable to effectively trade with the continent due to tariffs, she warned it could cause a vast surplus and lead to the mass slaughter of UK sheep.

The UK is currently the second largest supplier of lamb in the world – but the country still receives more than 70,000 tonnes of the meat from New Zealand every year, a trade agreement that would still continue in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

“There is of course a tariff schedule out, but if you can't get your lamb into the European market that puts you into oversupply," Ms Batters told Sophie Ridge on Sky News. "That means that you will have many farmers going out of business and indeed you would have to look at slaughtering quite a large percentage of the national sheep flock."

She added the risk to UK jobs would be equally catastrophic to the sector.

“We’ve said consistently that it would be socially and economically disastrous for this sector," she said. “Agriculture is part of the largest manufacturing sector, food and drink, which is worth more than the car industry and the aerospace industry put together. We employ one in seven people so it is really, really serious for us.”

Boris Johnson is reportedly meant to be campaigning in Brecon and Radnorshire today. Maybe somebody should ask him about this.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Plaid Cymru's internal feud gets out of hand

Labour and the Tories are not the only political parties struggling with internal divisions, Plaid Cymru, the self-proclaimed Party of Wales, are also in a bit of turmoil at the moment. Plaid's issues revolve around the fate of one of their Assembly Members, Neil McEvoy.

McEvoy is currently suspended from the party for a whole host of reasons, and estranged from a number of members of the Assembly's Plaid Cymru group, who expelled him. He is now seeking readmission as a member of Plaid, in the hope that he can unseat the First Minister in the Cardiff West constituency at the 2021 elections.

However, according to the Western Mail, some members are seeking to derail this process. The paper says that complaints have been received that McEvoy damaged the party’s reputation by criticising the non-custodial sentence handed to a senior Plaid politician who possessed extreme child pornography:

Simon Thomas, who resigned as a regional AM for Mid and West Wales after being arrested in July 2018, received a six-month prison sentence suspended for two years when he pleaded guilty to three counts of making indecent images of children.

Police found more than 600 indecent pictures and videos on an iPad and a mobile phone when they raided Thomas’ home – 150 in the highest category of illegal images.

Responding to what he saw as the lenient nature of the sentence Mr McEvoy tweeted: “This sentence is all wrong. How is this protecting children? How can you avoid jail when you’ve bought and made images and videos of extreme child abuse? This has to be reviewed. Where’s the justice for his victims?”

The rational response to this attempt to undermine McEvoy's appeal is to ask why it is that the complainant did not consider that Simon Thomas had brought the party into disrepute? McEvoy's tweeted incomprehension at the leniency of the sentence was a perfectly natural response. If anything it did him credit.

Longstanding Plaid Cymru member, Dewi Evans questions why Plaid Cymru didn’t take the opportunity to speak out about child pornography, and I think it is a fair question. Whatever, the reasons though, this latest complaint does have an air of desperation about it.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Labour's civil war?

In the Sunday Times, there are clear indications that the strain of poor polling figures and divisions over Brexit and anti-Semitism are starting to take their toll at the very top of the Labour Party. The paper says that Jeremy Corbyn has been plunged into a leadership crisis after his closest allies demanded that he sack his top aides for keeping him “captive”. At the same time, new claims of anti-semitism and bullying have engulfed the party:

Multiple sources said Diane Abbott and John McDonnell confronted Corbyn, insisting that he fire his gatekeeper Karie Murphy and Seumas Milne, his director of communications and strategy.

The crisis comes as Labour last night went to war with the BBC, accusing the corporation of “bias” as it prepares to broadcast fresh claims about the leadership’s handling of anti-semitism in the party.

Up to half a dozen former Labour staff have torn up gagging agreements imposed on them by the party to speak to a Panorama programme, to be broadcast on Wednesday. Labour is set to sue former staff for blowing the whistle on the way in which Murphy and Milne are alleged to have intervened to protect left-wingers accused of anti-Semitism.

Last night Labour accused the BBC of “bias and interference in the political process”, vowing to make a formal complaint to the director-general Lord Hall.

Abbott has told colleagues that she and McDonnell staged an astonishing showdown with Corbyn, warning him that his leadership will be mortally damaged unless he stops listening to the two aides and backs a new referendum.

Abbott told friends: “They are keeping him captive.”

Murphy, Corbyn’s chief of staff, took extended leave and returned to her family in Scotland last week to care for her mother, who died yesterday.

As civil war erupted:
The row comes after a poll last week put Labour on 18%, their worst showing in a decade.

Abbott, a former girlfriend of the Labour leader and one of his oldest allies, is furious that Murphy and Milne — along with former communist Andrew Murray and Len McCluskey, the boss of the Unite union — have driven a wedge between Corbyn and his grassroots supporters by dissuading him from backing a new EU referendum.

In their showdown about 10 days ago, Abbott told Corbyn: “We have to move in that direction. You’re the one whose leadership will be trapped.”

A source close to Abbott said: “Diane is a Jeremy Corbyn supporter 100%, but she doesn’t think the direction Karie and Seumas are taking is helpful to Jeremy.”

Murphy and Milne received details of the hour-long Panorama programme last week and spent hours hunkered down in the party’s Southside headquarters. One party insider said: “They were clearly alarmed by what they saw and went into lockdown. It’s very possible that heads will roll.”

This weekend it was announced that Gordon Nardell QC, who was appointed by the party last year to help clear the backlog of outstanding anti-Semitism cases, is rejoining his chambers next month. Multiple sources said he quit after the party became aware of some of the claims being made in the programme.

Meanwhile the country is plummeting towards a disastrous no-deal Brexit under the possible leadership of Boris Johnson. Is it any wonder Labour are flagging in the polls?

Saturday, July 06, 2019

An £8.4 billion black hole

As the two candidates to be the next Prime Minister compete with each other to see how much of a hole they can ditch the United Kingdom economy into, the Independent carries a reminder of just how high the stakes are for the rest of us.

The paper says that local areas across the UK are set to lose access to as much as £8.4bn in funding in 18 months’ time unless the government acts fast to replace the European Union cash used to create jobs, support small businesses and invest in infrastructure.

The Local Government Association believes that England alone will miss out on £5.3bn once Britain leaves the EU, whilst Wales will also lose substantial amounts of funding for vital infrastructure projects:

The government announced a year ago that it would set up a UK replacement pot for European structural and investment funding.

According to the LGA, to have UK funding in place by December 2020 when the EU cash runs out, a consultation with local areas should have been completed by the autumn of 2018 as a first step but even this has not happened yet. “Time is running out to design a replacement programme,” the association said on Friday. “[EU] funding is a lifeline for local areas to make the investments that really make a difference to people and communities.”

Kevin Bentley, chair of the LGA’s Brexit taskforce, added: “Brexit cannot leave local areas facing huge financial uncertainty as a result of lost regional aid funding… With national funding for regeneration increasingly being depleted, all local areas have become increasingly reliant on EU money.”

A programme in Nottingham part-financed by the EU provides grants and advice to local employers and job seekers. In its first four years, the city’s employment rate rose substantially faster than the rate in England. Another scheme, in Portsmouth and Southampton, supports the long-term unemployed, the disabled and people with health conditions. The LGA said that for every £1 spent on the project, £1.70 was saved by the government through lower demand for welfare benefits, and health and social care.

Yet another EU-funded programme helped more than 3,000 youngsters in Essex complete apprenticeships in more than 100 disciplines. EU member states receive the bloc’s structural and investment funding every seven years. The money is targeted at five areas: regional development, employment and training, transport and environment, rural development, and fishing and coastal economies. Britain’s allocation for the 2014-2020 period amounts to £8.4bn.

The fact that the UK Government is so far behind in their preparations on this particular issue then it is clear that they are also behind in their other efforts. With the 31st October getting any closer, do Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt really think that their rhetoric can end in anything other than disaster?

Friday, July 05, 2019

When money is no object

Modern politics is all about money, and with a fairly toothless Electoral Commission, devoid of the necessary powers and, in some cases the gumption, to prevent abuses, the political party that can raise the most cash always has an advantage.

Without doubt that party has always been the Conservative Party, and with the decline in membership and influence for the Trade Union movement, their fundraising advantage has been magnified over recent elections. But, apart from tapping some mega-rich people for huge donations, how does the Conservative Party fill its coffers? This article in the Guardian may provide a clue.

The paper reveals that Conservative donors have spent lavish sums on hunting trips and champagne parties at a fundraising auction attended by the prime minister, Theresa May, and her potential successors, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

These included a £15,000, eight-person excursion to shoot pheasants on a Scottish estate and a £27,000 all-expenses paid trip to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Both were among the lots at the annual Tory summer ball on Wednesday:

Conservative politicians reportedly took a break from the leadership race to give the departing prime minister a standing ovation at the event at the private Hurlingham Club in Fulham, south-west London.

Video messages from cabinet ministers and the former Tory leaders David Cameron and William Hague offering May their thanks were also played to guests as they ate rare beef and drank expensive wine. One donor who was sitting at the same table as the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, is said to have stumped up £40,000 for a private champagne party for 100 people at the London Cabaret Club in Bloomsbury.

An advertisement for the prize is said to have offered a choice of entertainment including The Great Gatsby and James Bond.

Meanwhile, a brochure described the shooting trip as “an opportunity to take a 20-bird, high-quality pheasant shoot in Dumfriesshire” at the Raehills estate, with accommodation, dinner and breakfast included.

A signed photograph of Johnson and Cameron and a £24,000 private jet day trip for nine people to any destination in Europe were also sold.

The paper adds that Conservative donors have stumped up large amounts of money at previous fundraising events. At the party’s Black and White ball last year, a bidder paid about £55,000 for the privilege of spending a working day with May.

Earlier this year, Electoral Commission figures showed donations to the Conservatives had fallen sharply. Between 1 January and 31 March, the party accepted £3.83m from 220 separate donors, compared with £7.45m from 230 donors in the final quarter of 2018. That is still a lot of money, and one indication as to why reports of the Tory Party's demise are, as ever, widely exaggerated.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

When your hairstyle is a problem?

There is an interesting article in today's Guardian, which reports that California became the first state in the US to ban discrimination over natural hair on Wednesday.

They say that Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace (Crown) Act into law, prohibiting employers and schools from enforcing rules against hairstyles including afros, braids, twists, and locks:

Workplace policies that prohibit such styles have serious economic and health consequences, especially for black individuals, the bill said.

“In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second-class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race,” the bill said. “Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination.”

Instances of people of color facing discrimination in school and the workplace over their hair have gained visibility in recent years, as a movement among black women to wear natural styles has grown.

In 2013, BP fired a top executive for wearing what one colleague called “ethnic hairstyles” including twists, braids, and cornrows. In 2018, an Alabama woman sued after a company required her to cut her locks to get a job. Also that year, a woman said her 14-year-old son was sent home from his school in Fresno, California, because of the way his head was shaved. And in December, a white referee sparked outrage by requiring a black student to cut his dreadlocks off before a wrestling match.

Essentially, the proponents of this bill are arguing that enforcing a uniform rule on hairstyles is proxy racism, penalising people for their cultural norms. But this is not just a Californian initiative, the US army revised regulations to allow black soldiers to wear natural hairstyles in 2017. In February 2019, the city of New York banned restrictions on natural hair and hairstyles.

Some food for thought there.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Nigel Farage - man of the people?

Everybody is entitled to earn a living, and provided the source of income is legitimate then it is not my place to criticise. However, it is still particularly galling to see the Brexit Party leader continue to portray himself as a man of the people, while raking in the sort of cash that the ordinary working man or woman can only dream of.

Thus, the latest declaration of expenses in the European Parliament has revealed that Nigel Farage is earning at least €30,000 (£26,900) a month from his media company Thorn in the Side. The Guardian says that Farage is the sole director of Thorn in the Side, a company he founded in 2011 to handle earnings from media appearances and lectures.

The latest accounts revealed a big jump in the company’s assets, reaching £548,573 for the year to May 2018, compared with just over £157,000 for the previous year.

As the paper says, Farage recently fell foul of the European parliament’s obligation to reveal expenses after it was claimed he had failed to declare lavish gifts from the Brexit-supporting tycoon Arron Banks, including rent on a £4.4m Chelsea home with fixtures and fittings, a car with a driver and a promotional tour in the US.

Oh well, as long as he does his job, eh? But wait, Farage is one of the highest earners in the European parliament but had the worst attendance record among British MEPs. Over a four-year period between 2014 and 2018, he took part in only 40% of rollcall votes, according to researchers at VoteWatch Europe.

Nice work if you can get it.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The toll that elected office takes on politicians

There was a very interesting article in yesterday's Guardian, on the first study of psychological wellbeing among parliamentarians at Westminster which has found that three out of four MPs probably or definitely suffer from poor mental health.

The paper says that the research has found that members of the House of Commons are much more likely than either the general population or people in other high-level jobs to be troubled by distress, depression and similar conditions.

Analysis of information given by 146 MPs who filled in a questionnaire about their mental wellbeing showed that 62 (42%) had “less than optimal mental ill health” while another 49 (34%) had “probable mental ill health”. Just 35 (24%) had “no evidence of probable mental ill health”.

Dr Dan Poulter, the lead co-author of the study, and himself a Conservative MP and practising NHS psychiatrist said:

“Being an MP can be quite a lonely occupation. The work itself is inherently stressful. MPs are potentially at greater risk of developing mental health problems because of the nature of their work and because they work in a high-stress environment where there are many brickbats and not many bouquets,” said Poulter, who was a health minister from 2012-15 in the coalition government.

“There is also the long hours – MPs can work up to 60-hour weeks at Westminster and in their constituencies – and the fact that, by spending most of the week away from home, that puts a strain on relationships and they don’t have a supportive family environment to go home to at the end of the day.” 

Compared with four other types of employees, including the total population, corporate managers, all managers and high-earners, MPs have higher levels of feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness and depression. For example, 34% of MPs have a common mental disorder, double the 17% among those in high-income groups.

MPs “had lower levels of concentration, were losing sleep because of worry, were feeling less useful, were less capable of making decisions and were feeling under constant strain” compared with those in the four comparator groups, the study says.

Similarly, “a higher weighted proportion of MPs could not overcome difficulties, were less able to enjoy normal day-to-day activities, were less able to face up to their problems, reported losing confidence in themselves or feeling unhappy and depressed, and considered themselves to be a worthless person”.

The whipping system is another source of psychological upset for MPs, as is abuse, harassment and bullying, according to the findings, which are published in the journal BMJ Open. The “partisan, and occasionally confrontational and aggressive environment at Westminster” can also damage MPs’ wellbeing, Poulter added.

Having been a full-time elected politician myself, I can recognise all these issues, though the Welsh Assembly is a much more supportive environment, it is smaller, more congenial and members are closer to their family.

Nevertheless, even with staff to support you, being a Parliamentarian is a lonely job, with a huge weight of expectation heaped upon you. Performance anxiety, loneliness, long hours, stress, and insecurity all take their toll.

Losing my seat was a huge blow, but I very quickly discovered a mental balance that I had been missing for many years. I felt more relaxed, more at ease and greater contentment. I also found I had time for personal projects that I had been planning for many years, but had not got around too.

It was a great privilege being a Welsh Assembly Member, and I enjoyed most of the time I did that job. I acquired great personal satisfaction out of helping people, and securing important changes through legislation and budget negotiations, but my time in that job is past. I will not be going back.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Is England the biggest threat to devolution?

There was a very useful article in yesterday's Observer assessing the impact of devolution and its legacy. It concludes that those who saw devolution as an answer to the threat of nationalism miscalculated.

In Scotland it was thought that devolution would persuade the Scots to turn their backs on independence and that a parliament elected by proportional representation would ensure the SNP could never win a majority. Such a view was very wrong:

In the event, the SNP won one in 2011, came close to winning the vote for independence in 2014 and still commands the field. The referendum redefined politics. It enabled the SNP to put the constitution front and centre. Against the backdrop of a Brexit that most Scots opposed, the nationalist cause has prospered afresh. Many suspect that the elevation of Boris Johnson may be the best recruiting sergeant the SNP could hope for. 

But the main point is a well-made one. that the biggest threat to the union lies in England:

The UK’s largest nation, and 85% of the UK’s inhabitants, have little systemic devolution of any kind. While other UK nations enjoy forms of self-government and civil societies of notable vibrancy, England as such does not. England is a diverse society; new research shows it is increasingly comfortable with its diversity. Yet the institutions of England resist modern forms of democracy and of open pluralism. The English have no effective self-government at local, regional or national level. Instead, they have a UK parliament elected by first past the post, which stifles minority parties and whose large parties have a built-in interest to resist change. All this has been radically toxified, for England as well as the rest of the UK, by a Brexit vote that was won in England and whose most ardent supporters see themselves as English rather than British. The union is in danger, but the danger is not primarily from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. It mostly comes from England itself.

Until the democratic deficit in England is addressed then devolution in the other countries of the UK will remain under threat. A sobering thought to take to the Welsh Government's celebration of 20 years of devolution in Cathays Park this evening.

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