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Saturday, August 31, 2019

Almost 100 whales slaughtered in Faroe Islands

The Welsh women's football team may just have hammered the Faroe Islands six-nil in an international game but surely there is a case to ban these islands from any and all international sport, and impose sanctions upon them until they stop the so-called traditional hunt and slaughter of pilot whales, an endangered species.

The Independent reports that a total of 94 long finned pilot whales, including four calves and at least five pregnant mothers, were dragged ashore and killed on the beach at the town of Vestmanna:

According to marine conservation charity Sea Shepherd, which has documented the slaughter, the grindadrap hunt - more commonly known as "the grind", “involved over five hours of Faroese boats harassing and chasing the pod”.

"The killing took around 12 minutes with the stressed and exhausted pilot whales of all ages being killed indiscriminately in front of their family members until all were left silent on the blood red sands of Vestmanna," the charity said.

Photographs the charity posted to its Instagram page show unborn baby whales still inside their amniotic sacs, and others show the carcasses of butchered whales being offloaded back into the sea by large diggers.

The traditional hunt has been taking place since Norsemen first settled on the islands over a thousand years ago. 

And this is not even a seasonal thing, the paper quotes Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson and chief operating officer Rob Read as reporting that the hunts “can happen at any time, at any one of the 26 designated killing bays around the Faroe Islands…. with no season, no quota, a lack of effective regulation and despite pilot whale meat being heavily contaminated”.

He added: “Every member of every pod [of pilot whales and dolphins] is killed including pregnant mothers, juveniles and weaning babies. None are ever spared”.

They say that the slaughter at Vestmanna is the eleventh hunt on the Faroe islands this year - with more than 600 pilot whales slaughtered so far in 2019.  Isn't it time international pressure put an end to this?

Friday, August 30, 2019

Government tactics leave EU citizens in limbo

If the country and politics itself has been thrown into chaos by talks of a no deal Brexit, then spare a thought for the many EU citizens living in the UK, whose very way of life is being threatened by the recklessness of Boris Johnson and his fellow Tory ministers.

As the Guardian reports, EU citizens living in Britain have asked the government for clarification on their status in the event of a no-deal Brexit. They says that altough 1 million have applied for settled status, at least 2.6 million have yet do so:

More than 100 EU citizens who have yet to apply contacted the Guardian on Tuesday to express fears about what their status would be immediately after a no-deal Brexit.

One person is a solicitor who moved from Sweden at the age of three in the 1980s, who has not yet applied for settled status because she does not have an Android phone. The application cannot yet be done on an iPhone, although the Home Office said this will be possible in the autumn, but can be done by post or by going to a dedicated scanning centre, although this takes longer.

They are looking to collate the experiences of EU citizens. Please use the linked page to let them know your experience if you are affected by this issue.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Constitutional crisis? But where is the Queen?

There are varying interpretations of the decision by Prime Minister Johnson to prorogue Parliament until after the party conference season, most of them unfavourable.

There is already a million plus signature petition calling for the prorogation to be reversed, whilst in the Guardian, the Shadow Attorney General, writing from her privileged and unelected position in the House of Lords, argues that the shutdown is unconstitutional.

What is certain is that this five week hiatus will aid and abet those who want to reinterpret the outcome of the 2016 referendum by crashing us out of the EU without a deal. It limits the time for opponents of no deal, reputedly a majority in the House of Commons, to organise legislation to stop it, if indeed that was possible.

Scrutiny will be curtailed and Ministers will be able to make crucial decisions without challenge. It is little wonder that the Speaker blew a gasket and issued a blazing statement of condemnation from his holiday destination.

But where was the Queen in all this? She is meant to be a constitutional monarch, the guardian of our unwritten constitution. Faced with a similar crisis in 1911, her grandfather insisted on a General Election before consenting to aiding the democratically elected government to force its budget through the House of Lords and introduce new conventions to restrain peers in future. Boris Johnson has not even won an election as Prime Minister.

Here, in 2019, the Queen apparently rolled over in the face of Jacob Rees Mogg's cheerless charm. In my view she should have insisted on limiting prorogation to the days before the proposed Queen's speech, allowing MPs the opportunity to cancel the conference recess and return to Parliament to debate the crisis facing us.

If our constitutional monarch is just going to rubber stamp everything put in front of her, then why do we persist with retaining a monarchy at all? A directly elected head of state would have had far more authority to intervene in this process and allow a proper democratic process to unfold.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Government confuses itself over EU nationals

Given the number of hoops that EU nationals are now required to jump through to stay in the UK, I suppose it is unsurprising that even the government is struggling to understand its own regulations. That at least, is how I read the latest cock-up from Boris central.

As the Independent reports, a Home Office campaign informing EU nationals how to confirm their UK status after Brexit has been banned by the advertising watchdog for being “misleading”:

In April, a radio advert for the EU settlement scheme was aired stating that all applicants would need was their passport or ID card and to complete an online form.

But in a damning verdict, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said this was “misleading” because many applicants had been required to submit other documents that were not named in the advert.

The watchdog said the advertisement breached regulations and must not be broadcast again in that form.

This is not the first time the Home Office has sought to over-simplify issues that it has made far more complex than they need to be. But Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary Christine Jardine is right as well when she says:

“It’s appalling the way EU citizens have been treated by the Tories since the referendum. We’ve already heard far too many cases of people not receiving the settled status they are entitled to. The Home Office putting out misleading adverts about how to apply only makes it worse.”

Can anybody really say, hand on heart, that the Home Office is fit for purpose?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

EU destroys another Brexit fantasy

Greeting claims by Brexiteers, and Boris Johnson in particular, with a large pinch of the proverbial salt is becoming second nature to many of us. So, when on Sunday, the Prime Minister claimed that “very substantial sums” could be redirected to domestic priorities if the UK left without a deal, amid reports that he had received legal advice suggesting that the payment could be cut to as little as £7bn, we could be forgiven for being sceptical. And for good reason.

As the Independent reports, Brussels is of the view that Britain will be expected to pay its £39bn Brexit divorce bill in full even if it leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement.

The paper quotes a European Commission spokesperson who indicated that failure to pay could hamper the UK’s chances of negotiating a free-trade agreement with the remaining 27 nations after withdrawal, stating that the financial settlement was “essential” to getting the new relationship onto a good footing.

Furthermore, Johnson did not even mention the settlement in his meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk at the G7 summit in France, while the commission spokesperson said that London has not formally raised the issue with the EU so far.

Not having a trade deal with the EU is bad enough, but what other countries will treat the UK in good faith and even talk to us if we are so willing to abandon our legal obligations? Johnson risks isolating the UK even more if he pursues this course of action.

Monday, August 26, 2019

PM tries to pass buck for TV licence betrayal

Despite the attempt to put some distance between his premiership and that of Theresa May, Boris Johnson is till relying on the same playbook.

Back in 2017 the Tories fought the General Election on a promise of maintaining pensioner benefits, “including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament”.

Unfortunately, this was a pledge they felt unable to keep and as of June this year responsibility for funding free TV licences for the over-75s, which costs an estimated £750m a year, is being handed over to the BBC.

It goes without saying that the money was not handed over at the same time, leaving the corporation with the choice of maintaining the benefit or closing BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, the BBC Scotland channel, Radio 5 Live, and several local radio stations.

Research from the House of Commons library found that 3 million households would lose their free TV licences as a result of the compromise the BBC has found in order to accommodate this obligation. The BBC has said it will continue to provide licences to over-75s who can provide evidence that they claim pension credit, a means-tested benefit designed to help older people.

Now, as the Guardian reports, Johnson has reignited the row over who should fund free TV licences for the over-75s, urging the BBC to “cough up”. Theresa May repeatedly urged the BBC to continue funding the benefit but the broadcaster announced in June that most over-75s would have to pay for a licence, with only the poorest protected.

As with May, Johnson is trying to blame the BBC for his own government’s policy. Wouldn't it be better if he were more honest and accept the blame for this U-turn and his refusal to reverse it?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Ex-pat pensioners to suffer from no-deal Brexit

I recall the time when the Tories relied on overseas voters to win seats like the Vale of Glamorgan. I am not so sure that they will have quite the same level of support from continent-based Brits if they crash us out of Europe without a deal.

There has been a lot written about the impact of Brexit on European citizens living in the UK, but we must not forget that there is approximately three million UK citizens living elsewhere in the European Union. And as The Sunday Times reveals, that could lead to some dire consequences, for those dependant on international agreements for their health care.

The paper says that up to 260,000 British nationals living in the EU — many of them pensioners — are expected to return to Britain if there is a no-deal Brexit, placing a huge burden on the NHS and other services:

Boris Johnson’s no-deal war cabinet was told last week that “gaps” would open in the healthcare provided to British citizens living in the other 27 member states in the event of no-deal and that healthcare was the “most immediate risk” facing them.

Ministers have been told that reciprocal healthcare arrangements will cease and “state pensioners” could “become vulnerable” if they could not access treatment in the EU, which is now paid for by the British government. Changes in how expats access healthcare would lead to between 160,000 and 260,000 Britons returning home in the two years after a no-deal Brexit, officials have calculated.

That is between five and nine times the usual annual return rate of 30,000 expats and would force public services to cope with an increase in patients roughly equal to the population of Northampton or Oldham.

They add that the government is seeking to strike a series of bilateral deals with the other member states to recognise the rights of British citizens if there is no deal. But ministers have been warned that several states were refusing to co-operate or even to discuss the technical details of how such side deals might work if the UK crashed out on October 31.

In total, discussions are under way with 16 of the 27 member states. Top of the list of countries refusing to co-operate is France:

Most member states, with the exceptions of Croatia and Romania, have passed legislation to recognise some reciprocal rights for UK nationals. But in most countries the protection is lower than what Britain is offering EU nationals resident in the UK, and far below what expats enjoy at present.

France requires Britons to buy health insurance and show they have sufficient money to support themselves to be granted residency rights. France will also require British expats to register within six months of Brexit day. French citizens in the UK have until June 2021.

In Italy, British expats have to register before October 31 but officials in the Brexit department say many have been unable to secure appointments with the cash-strapped registration authorities.

I don't recall any of this being on the side of Boris Johnson's bus when he was telling us that the health service would be better off outside the EU.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

UK Government must step up to protect the Amazon

In many ways, establishing who is to blame for the current climate change crisis being created in the Amazon is less important than the need for united, prompt and effective action to deal with the fires that have created it.

Researchers in Brazil have detected more than 70,000 fires in the Amazon so far this year – an 84 per cent increase on last year – with many thought to have been deliberately started by agribusiness firms seeking to open up land for ranching.

French President, Emmanuel Macron has described the situation as an international crisis, tweeting: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire.”

Labour have said that the UK is “complicit” in the catastrophe and has urged the prime minister to tell Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro that the “reckless destruction” of his country’s vital natural resource must stop.

They believe that the Brazilian president had “allowed and indeed encouraged these fires to take place, to clear the forest in order that the land can then be used for … short-term agriculture production, and after that it becomes desert”. And have highlighted a recent visit to the country by trade minister Conor Burns, in which he was pictured raising a champagne glass with counterpart Marcus Troyjo, who has defended Bolsonaro’s policy of developing the Amazon region as an “intelligent use of the country’s natural resources”.

Although, the Prime Minister has backed Macron, it does not help when his government are sending mixed messages in this way. The Amazon may well lie within the territorial borders of Brazil, but it is a world-wide resource that needs international protection.

Words are not enough, if Brazil does not listen then we should be imposing sanctions on them and shunning them on the international stage. They cannot expect to trade with the rest of the world when they are threatening its very future.

Friday, August 23, 2019

UKIP firmly enscounced as the new far right party

If anybody had any doubt of the sort of party UKIP have become, then they should read this article in the Guardian.

The paper says that Richard Braine, the new UKIP leader, has been accused of whipping up religious tensions and anti-Muslim prejudice after leaked emails showed he argued that people should no more want Muslims to settle in their country than Nazis:

Braine, who won the leadership after a campaign in which he expressed anti-Islam views, also suggested that non-Muslims needed to help Muslims to “cast out their demon” and argued there was no such thing as “moderate Muslims”.

One email reads: “The nonsense of the moderate Muslim is trotted out repeatedly by so many people with good intentions, but wilful ignorance of Islamic teaching. There is no moderate Islam. Get used to it. It’s a fact. When people talk about moderate Muslims they are making an error. It is like saying Hitler wasn’t such a bad fellow, quite a laugh actually, an entertaining speaker, a patron of the arts – he loved Wagner – he made the trains run on time, and just look at his smart uniforms. It is to ignore completely the ideology to which the person is religiously wedded.”

He added: “You should no more apologise for a moderate Muslim, and wish him to settle in your country, than you should a moderate Maoist or Nazi.”

It is little wonder that UKIP are languishing at 1% in the polls, nor is there any doubt in my view that they have now firmly established themselves on the unsavoury far right spectrum of British politics.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Time to change the system

When opinion polls are showing the Liberal Democrats neck and neck with Labour, but only likely to win a third of the number of seats, then it is clearly time to change the system. Some of us have been saying that for a considerable amount of time, so it is good to have a new study to back up our argument.

The Independent reports that an analysis of the 2019 election results has found England to have large areas of “democracy deserts” and that there were the “wrong winners” in 17 local authorities:

The Denied Democracy report, auditing votes held in 2019, including the local elections and European elections, claims voters are eager to “shop around” at the ballot box but are prevented by the current system.

It adds that during the local elections in May, there were 17 authorities where the party scoring the most votes did not get the most councillors up for election.

The reports authors said this a “localised example of something that has happened on a national scale” in UK general elections under first-past-the-post (FPTP).

They wrote: “In 1951, Labour won most votes across the UK (48.8%) but the Conservatives won the majority of seats. In February 1974, the Conservatives won most votes (37.8%) but Labour won the most seats.”

For England read Wales of course (though we did not have local council elections this year), but in Scotland and Northern Ireland where voters choose their councillors using the proportional single transferable vote system this phenomenon is not a problem.

Isn't it time that something was done about this undemocratic voting system?

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Tories move to isolate the UK

Despite all the rhetoric of wanting to engage with the EU and negotiate a withdrawal agreement, the actions of Tory Ministers scream completely the opposite intent.

The Independent is reporting this morning that Boris Johnson is going to pull British officials and ministers out of most EU decision-making meetings from September.

They say that civil servants and ministers will now only attend EU meetings where the UK has a significant national interest in the outcome, such as on security. The question of course is how will ministers know whether a discussion is important or not if they are not there.

Furthermore there will be wider consequences to this decision. Irrespective of whether we leave the EU with a deal or not, we will want to negotiate a trade deal with the world's biggest free trade bloc. In the run-up to those negotiations, it can only benefit us from sitting in on as many meetings as possible and influencing decisions.

Instead, Johnson has pulled up the drawbridge and isolated the UK even more from the rest of the world, a decision that will have huge consequences for our future prosperity.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

UK Government doomed to repeat mistakes over and over

Reports that the new Home Secretary is proposing to end freedom of movement for EU citizens immediately after a no-deal Brexit are both predictable and disturbing.

It is predictable because Brexit has always been about isolating the UK in the world and taking us back to the pre-World War One era of Empire, when Britain ruled the waves and all was right in the world. It is an unachievable fantasy but one that is nevertheless driving the actions of UK Ministers.

It is disturbing of course because, as the Guardian reports, it could create a hostile environment for European nationals. They quote The3million, a citizens group that represents the rights of EU nationals in the UK, who question why home secretary, Priti Patel, intends to impose new border restrictions overnight on 31 October when an internal government discussion paper has warned that doing so could present “legitimate concerns of another Windrush”:

The document also set out details of an alternative plan to maintain freedom of movement until January 2021 and to allow EU immigrants who came to the UK in the meantime to apply to stay under existing “settled status” rules.

But Home Office sources told the Times that the document did not reflect government thinking and that freedom of movement for people from EU countries would end “on October 31 should we leave without a deal”. Amid reports that the government wishes to make the change through a statutory instrument – meaning that MPs would only be required to endorse the move after its implementation – the3million said the plan could open the way to mass discrimination.

The group renewed its call for all EU nationals to be automatically granted settled status and accused the prime minister, Boris Johnson, of undermining his promise to guarantee the rights and protections of EU citizens.

“The idea of ending freedom of movement abruptly on 31 October in case of no deal is reckless politics,” said Nicholas Hatton, the group’s founder. “It hollows out the prime minister’s unequivocal guarantee to EU citizens he has given only three weeks ago.

“Ending freedom of movement without putting legal provisions in place for those EU citizens who have not yet successfully applied through the settlement scheme will mean that millions of lawful citizens will have their legal status removed overnight.

“We have been calling for the settlement scheme to be a declaratory registration scheme, so all EU citizens who have made the UK their home are automatically granted status, as promised by those in government.

“Otherwise this will open the door to mass discrimination under the hostile environment, with employers, landlords, banks and the NHS unable to distinguish between those EU citizens with the right to live and work in the UK and those without.”

The corollary to this of course is the impact on UK citizens living and working in Europe. Have the UK Government even considered the impact on those individuals and their families? It seems that they have not.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Haves and Have-nots in San Francisco

I don't make a habit of writing about what I did on my holidays, but my recent experience in San Francisco causes me to post a brief commentary on some of the social issues we observed there.

Of course the UK is not exempt from similar issues of homelessness, mental ill-health and drug abuse, and in fact many cities here have seen an increase in these problems, but the scale of the problem in the United States is not just daunting, it is frightening.

I love San Francisco, I have now been there three times. I have read numerous books on its history and the many troubled times it has survived, including the drugs and sexually transmitted diseases in the 1960s and 1970s, and of course the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s, not to mention the earthquakes and the number of times it was almost completely destroyed by fire.

When I first went there in 2002 the street homeless were very much in evidence. In 2014 they were present in numbers too. This year there was a much higher police presence and consequently not such a high concentration of people gathering in the Tenderloin and outside City Hall, but the issue was in our face wherever we went.

San Francisco has been in the news recently because of its success in attracting a record number of new high-paying jobs, mostly in the high tech sector. Consequently, the cost of housing has risen significantly and is largely unaffordable for many people. There is also resentment amongst some at the way that high tech workers are being bussed in and out of the City.

This affluence however has not spread to everybody. Reports in the San Francisco Chronicle whilst we were there indicated that there are over 8,000 people classed as homeless in the City, many living on the streets. As ever with such a large street presence, there are massive problems with substance misuse and mental ill-health, plus there is not much of a safety net.

In our exploration of the city and its environs, we came across a number of politicians campaigning for public office, some of whom recognise the problem, but questions have to be asked as to whether their proposed solutions are sufficient or not.

As with the UK, there is clearly a need for substantial affordable housing provision, but backed up with investment in rehabilitation, health and other support services. What we need to know is why some of the wealth now coming into San Francisco is not being used to a greater extent in doing what is necessary to deal with this crisis.

If the USA is a country of haves and have-nots, San Francisco appears to have taken that to extremes. It is not a pretty sight. Surely more can be done to redress the balance.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Is the Brecon and Radnorshire result the start of a wider remain alliance?

All the media this morning are reporting that the fantastic Welsh Liberal Democrats victory in Brecon and Radnorshire is the start of a wider alliance of political parties committed to remaining in the EU or at the very least a people's vote on the final deal.

The Mirror says that anti-Brexit parties are in talks to form more 'Remain Alliances' across the UK after the Lib Dem victory by 1,425 votes left Boris Johnson with a Commons majority of one.

They add that last night's margin of victory was smaller than the votes won in 2015 by the Green Party and Plaid Cymru - both of whom pulled out this time to unite around one Remain candidate. It is also arguable of course, that both parties' vote may well have been squeezed in any case, just as the Labour vote was:

Now Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has suggested there will be more electoral pacts in future.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today: "I do think that working across party lines is important when there is so much at stake for the future of our country and I will continue to do that.

"I've exchanged messages this morning with the Green and Plaid leaderships.

"And I think there will be more co-operation in future elections."

For what it is worth in my view there were four factors behind Jane Dodd's victory yesterday:
  1. An impressive squeeze of the Labour vote to near-deposit-losing levels; 
  2. The fact most of the postal voting took place before the Boris bounce;
  3. The reselection of the awful and tainted Tory candidate that helped fuel 1 and 2;
  4. A fantastic and energetic campaign with lots of voter contact both in person and on paper.
The remain alliance clearly helped, but it was not the main factor, and in fact even if you discount Labour (and who wouldn't) the leave parties still had a majority.

It seems to me that it is certainly worth exploring similar co-operation in future, but that we should do so on a case-by-case basis, pending a wider agreement for the General Election, when it comes.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Liberal Democrats saving the environment, one step at a time

Although Wales led the way with a 5p charge on single use bags and reaped the benefit of a massive reduction in people utilising them when shopping etc., it was the Liberal Democrats, in government, who insisted that England follow suit. Today's Independent demonstrates the beneficial impact that decision is having for the environment.

The paper says that disposable plastic bag use in England’s main supermarkets has fallen by more than 90 per cent since the introduction of a 5p charge in 2015 with the average English shopper now using just 10 bags a year, compared to 140 before the charge came in.

They add that Government data suggests more than 25 billion fewer single-use bags have been issued by the seven biggest food retailers in the three and a half years of the charge than if use had continued at previous rates of 7.6 billion a year.

In addition, retailers donated more than £22m to good causes from the proceeds of bag sales last year, bringing the total since the charge was introduced to £169m.

This is particularly important when you consider that Government scientists believe plastic in the sea is set to treble in a decade unless marine litter is tackled. One million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals die every year from eating and getting tangled in plastic waste.

It is small steps like this that make a real difference in the fight to save our planet.

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