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Friday, January 31, 2020

Johnson's election promises start to unravel

It was bad enough being lied to about the extra £350m a week for the NHS, a claim which still persists in some quarters despite its deconstruction within days of it first appearing on the side of a bus. However, it now transpires that the many promises of greater investment in public services made by the Tories in last month's General Election may also have been a tad over-egged.

As the Financial Times reports, Boris Johnson has ordered all cabinet ministers to identify cuts of at least 5 per cent to their Whitehall department budgets, telling them to consider axing programmes that do not improve health, fight crime or tackle regional inequalities:

A letter jointly signed by the prime minister and chancellor Sajid Javid tells ministers that budgets remain extremely tight, even after a decade of austerity in public services.

Cabinet ministers have been told to identify possible cuts of at least 5 per cent in their day-to-day current budgets and to name 10 projects that could be scrapped in this autumn’s comprehensive spending review led by the Treasury.

Ministers will have to go through every line of departmental budgets assessing value for money, while programmes that do not relate to the government’s priorities — funding the National Health Service, tackling crime or “levelling up” underperforming regions — should be considered for the chop.

So much for the end to Austerity.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Modern Slavery is still slavery

I have always thought the term 'modern slavery' is a bit disingenuous, as if it is significantly different from that in our near past. It still involves the loss of freedom, the taking away of human dignity, maltreatment and abuse - often sexual but also physical and mental abuse.  The only difference is that it carries on out of sight, whereas before it was paraded openly.

We know that 'modern slavery' is going on all around us, as is the trafficking of men, women and children into this country to be enslaved. Getting a handle on the scale of this activity is difficult however, even for the authorities.

It comes as no surprise therefore, though that does not mitigate the horror, that the London Assembly’s police and crime committee has heard that there has been a more than tenfold increase in the number of people identified as victims of modern slavery and human trafficking in London, and more than 30% of all cases nationally are discovered in the capital.

As the Guardian reports, in London in 2018, the Metropolitan police recognised 2,346 people as victims of modern slavery, compared with 187 in 2013:

Of the 5,143 people referred by the Home Office for support after being identified as victims of slavery in 2017, about 1,500 were in London – almost three times the number in any other region or country in the UK.

In October, the Local Government Association reported an 807% rise in the number of child victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.

They say that the committee has also called on the Home Office to change the national referral mechanism, which is the gateway to getting support. They also want the London modern slavery partnership board, established in 2018, to develop a London-specific modern slavery strategy to improve the capital’s response to the problem.

Wales is a bit ahead of England in dealing with this problem but even here there is much more to do, especially in understanding its extent and informing people of what to look out for.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Should the BBC call off the rottweilers?

Over at the The Times, they report on remarks by the outgoing Director General of the BBC that it’s time for presenters to give politicians a break. Lord Hall of Birkenhead, speaking at the launch of the Edelman Trust Barometer, has lent his weight to calls for a fresh approach to political interviews, suggesting that overly aggressive encounters can contribute to public cynicism. He has suggested that journalists should grant politicians a little more space to outline their ideas.

“We’ve got to look at our part in the nature of political discourse,” he said during a debate about the erosion of trust in national institutions. “I’m a great believer in the long form political interview where you can explore at length, not in soundbites, the real policy decisions that politicians are making.”

He added: “I think our journalism needs to reflect that making decisions is difficult. It’s rarely 100 per cent that way and zero per cent that way, things are in the middle. Exploring those sort of nuances is an important part of what we should do.”

This is all very well but, at a time when Parliament has moved more towards showpiece debates and staged question session, surely it is the job of journalists and broadcasters to scrutinise and put politicians on the spot, to properly test their policies and their records. I agree with Amber Rudd and Emily Maitlis:

Lord Hall’s remarks, at the launch of the Edelman Trust Barometer, indicate that the BBC is reassessing the value of traditional “gotcha” interviews, in which presenters seek to trap ministers into gaffes or U-turns.

They come as Conservative frontbenchers continue to boycott Today on Radio 4 on the orders of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s most powerful adviser. Last week it emerged that a think tank led by Mr Cummings proposed snubbing Today interviews as early as 2004, on the grounds that the programme exists to make politicians look stupid.

Amber Rudd, the Tory former home secretary, described No 10’s boycott of Today as disgraceful. “Trust will not be rebuilt with the public by a government avoiding scrutiny,” she told the same event.

Emily Maitlis, lead presenter of Newsnight, responded to the director-general’s call for nuanced, explorative interviews with a note of caution that interviews have a life of their own and cannot be scripted. “They’re not just a factual record of statement — we have Hansard for that. They have to be engaging, enlightening and make you want to watch on,” she told The Times.

“That doesn’t mean everything has to be a battle, far from it, but you do have to leave the audience feeling if they look away they will miss something.”

If the BBC steps back from this sort of scrutiny then it will become nothing more than a poodle of government. That will no doubt delight many Ministers but it will leave politics and political discourse worse off

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Another £46m down the drain in pursuit of Brexit

The most anti-business Tory Government ever strikes again. Not content with plunging the economy into uncertainty and possible depression through a hard Brexit and a nebulous trade deal it seems that Boris Johnson's government also wasted £46m on a “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign in October, which the National Audit Office claims demonstrated little evidence it left the public better prepared.

As the Guardian reports, the National Audit Office said ministers chose to run a £100m campaign – the most expensive of four options – to tell all UK businesses and individuals how they should prepare for leaving the EU. The campaign was launched as the 31 October deadline for leaving the EU approached.

But the evidence shows that the proportion of UK citizens who reported that they had looked or started to look for information, did not notably change:

Auditors said the numbers of people looking for information about Brexit did not notably change as a result – ranging from 32% and 37% during the campaign, to 34% when it stopped, having spent just under half of the allotted money.

The campaign was halted three days before the UK was supposed to leave after the EU granted another extension.

The report increases concerns over the government’s spending leading up to the 31 October deadline set by the prime minister to leave the EU with or without a deal.

It comes as the government prepares a new “Ready to Trade” campaign on 1 February, the day after the UK is due to formally leave the EU.

Auditors found the cabinet office’s business case did not demonstrate increased impact for the proposed spending on the campaign compared with lower-cost alternatives. Auditors said it was “not clear” it left people “significantly better prepared”.

To be fair, this is a common fault of most governments - the desire to do something, rather than to do what is effective. Evidence based policy making and proper evaluation appears to be lacking at all levels, and is made worse by inadequate scrutiny both by the media and the opposition.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Another threat to health

The Guardian reports on a new study which has found that more than one in 19 deaths in Britain’s largest towns and cities are linked to air pollution – with people living in urban areas in south-east England more likely to die from exposure to toxic air.

The study found that London, Slough, Chatham, Luton and Portsmouth had the highest proportion of deaths attributable to pollution, with around one in 16 in 2017 caused by high levels of harmful particulates in the atmosphere:

By contrast, places such as Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Blackpool attributed one in 30 deaths to air pollution, highlighting what the study’s authors, the Centre for Cities thinktank, called a “south-north” divide in air quality.

Although air pollution was a problem in most big cities and urban areas of the UK, it was especially heavily concentrated in the south-east, including places like Southampton, Reading, Oxford, Cambridge, Basildon and Northampton.

Air pollution was the UK’s largest environmental risk to public health, it said, producing the equivalent of 40,000 deaths a year nationally. It urged the government to introduce stricter legal guidelines on particulate matter emissions to help tackle the problem.

It also urged local authorities to raise their game on cutting air pollution. Practical local policies aimed at cutting pollution were slow or absent, in contrast to the enthusiasm with which many councils have made political declarations of climate emergency.

“Politicians often talk tough on addressing air pollution but we need to see more action. Cities should be at the centre of the fight against toxic air and councils should take the steps needed, including charging people to drive in city centres and banning wood-burning stoves,” said Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities.

The need for local action is especially apposite. A number of councils, including Swansea, have declared a climate emergency. This issue is equally as important and needs the same sort of attention. Yes, we need to save the planet in the long term, but we also need to make it fit to live in now.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Rubbing our noses in it

There is such a thing as a gracious loser, so Michael Heseltine is absolutely right when he accuses the UK Government of seeking to “rub the noses of Remainers in their defeat”, after the prime minister announced events to commemorate the UK’s departure from the EU this coming Friday at 11pm.

Downing Street have commissioned three million special 50p coins bearing the words “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. These will enter shops, banks and restaurants from Friday with a further seven million coming into circulation by the end of the year. Union Jack flags will also line Parliament Square and the Mall on Friday and the public will see government buildings in Whitehall lit up in red, white and blue.

The government also wants to encourage, “a commemorative light display” in Downing Street in the run-up to 11pm, the hour that the UK will officially end its 47 year membership of Europe’s club of nations. While a countdown clock will be projected on to it from 10pm. Officials claim that the light display will “symbolise the strength and unity” of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom.

Michael Heseltine however, takes a different view. He told the Observer: “Brexit is the most divisive issue of modern times. Those of us who fought to remain did so sincerely in the interests of our country and subsequent generations who we believe should be influential at the heart of Europe.

“I think it is unwise of the government to rub our noses in it by celebrating our defeat at this hour, whilst talking about unifying the country.”

He said the only comfort was that plans to chime Big Ben to mark the moment the UK leaves had been dropped. “At least we are spared the sound of Big Ben being chimed at our discomfort.” Adapting the quote from John Donne the Tory peer added: “Send not to inquire for whom the bells tolls. It tolls for thee.”

Ed Davey is also right to call out these events as using public money for an inappropriate, divisive event. “The prime minister should be seeking to pull the country together, not gloat with an expensive party on the public purse,” he said.

This triumphalism is no way to pull a country together, instead it will serve to further alienate people. If Boris Johnson were seeking to be the most divisive Prime Minister since Thatcher, he could not have found a better way.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

BBC target all the wrong shows

The Guardian reports that flagship BBC news shows including Newsnight, The World At One and Radio 4’s Today are to be subjected to the same cuts that have led to plans to axe Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC2 show, as part pf a drive to save about £40m in the corporation's news division:

It is understood the efficiencies being planned include Newsnight being asked to make fewer films. The late night BBC Two show is renowned for its agenda-setting coverage, last year broadcasting Emily Maitlis’ exclusive interview with Prince Andrew.

BBC Radio will be expected to share resources and material across its bulletins on different stations. At present, they have bespoke news roundups.

More presenters will also be asked to work across programmes and channels.

The changes are being proposed because BBC News has to save £80m as part of a pan-BBC efficiency target of £800m to help pay for free TV licences for over-75s.

It is true that the BBC is being asked to do the impossible, including implement Tory Government cuts to free TV licences, but one has to question the priorities and the targets for cuts. Why for example is the truly dreadful and unwatchable Question Time being spared?

Question Time jumped the shark some years ago and is ripe for the axe. I would rather see that programme being taken off air than Victoria Derbyshire.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Half measures on the environment help nobody

With Donald Trump in denial on the extent of climate change and the action needed to slow it down, it has been left to the rest of the world to do what is necessary to deal with this issue. However, for many nations, their measures amount to what is convenient rather than what is necessary. The UK is no exception.

As the Independent reports, our prime minister has announced an immediate end to the use of UK taxpayers’ money to support coal mining and coal-fuelled power stations in developing countries in a bid to limit climate change and protect biodiversity. However, the government is still pumping billions of pounds into overseas fossil fuel projects that could emit up to 69 million tonnes of greenhouses gases every year:

An investigation has revealed that UK Export Finance (UKEF), a small government agency in the Department for International Trade, has helped finance oil and gas projects that could emit up to 69 million tonnes of carbon every year.

This figure – which is said to be a “worst case scenario” – is equivalent to the amount emitted by a country the size of Portugal.

The joint probe by BBC Newsnight and Unearthed – Greenpeace’s investigations unit – also discovered UKEF has financed £6bn of fossil fuel projects around the world since 2010.

The money has helped fund schemes including oil wells and oil refineries in places such as Brazil and Oman, according to the investigation.

While this sort of investment remains unchecked the UK's claim to be a leader in the fight against global warming is laughable. We remain offenders and that needs to be put right.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Brexit and losing control?

Anybody who thinks that Brexit will allow us 'to take back control' must have been disabused of that notion again this morning by two articles in the Independent.

The first once more gives the lie to Boris Johnson's claim that there will be no customs checks in the Irish Sea, with the EU warning of sanctions if these checks do not take place.

Stefaan De Rynck, the senior adviser to chief negotiator Michel Barnier, insisted the inspections were a joint legal agreement, as the price for Britain – but not Northern Ireland – breaking free of the single market and customs union.

The paper says that it is understood that the EU will take the UK to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) if it fails to implement the checks, with the threat of heavy fines being imposed.

They add that crucially – and to the likely fury of Tory MPs – the ECJ will retain the power to fine the UK even after the transition period ends, at the end of 2020, when Brussels rule-making is meant to be over.

And then there is the big prize for Boris Johnson's Brexit, the so-called all-conquering trade deal with the United States - but on whose terms? Already the US is flexing its muscles by making it clear that they will dictate how these negotiations will proceed, with threats that if the UK imposes a two per cent tax levy on the likes of Google and Facebook in April then they will reciprocate with a tax on UK car imports- effectively triggering a trade war.

The UK Government have not ruled out counter-measures but, ironically, because the UK will be locked into a standstill transition period until the end of 2020 – with no direct say over EU decisions – any counter-measures would probably have to come from Brussels. And without the economic power of the EU behind us after 2020, any retaliation against the US will be fairly meaningless.

Chlorine-washed chicken, anyone?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Irony by-pass for Brexit Party MEP

It is all over social media, and quite rightly so, the Brexit MEP attending her last committee meeting before she ceases to be a member of the European Parliament on 31 January, questioning who will represent UK interests after that date.

As the Independent reports, June Mummery, one of the party's 29 representatives elected to the European Parliament last year, suggested the loss of MEPs would make it hard to hold Brussels to account.

She tweeted: "The big question now is, who will be here to hold these people to account while they still control Britain’s waters, but the UK has no representation?" 

As the paper points out Britain will lose its MEPs, EU commissioner and seats on the EU council after Brexit – leaving it with no control over the bloc's polices or political direction. However, because of the EU's dominant position in international trade, its policies are expected to have a significant impact on the UK even after Brexit.

The UK will also be directly bound to EU rules during the transition period until 2021, while Brussels has said any trade agreement will likely require some level of permanent alignment on Britain's part.

The reaction was immediate: If only somebody hadn’t lied and said there was no accountability, maybe people would have voted differently," said SNP MP Peter Grant.

Dr Charles Tannock, a former Conservative MEP from the party's pro-EU wing, joked: "Surely our British fish under UK sovereign control swimming in UK exclusive economic zone will respect true Brexit and stay out of EU common fisheries policy waters so all will be well?"

Lib Dem MEP Jane Brophy said: "It took a long time but finally a Brexit MEP realised what Brexit means. I fear for our country and all the people that are in for a big shock."

Labour MEP Rory Palmer added: "[I'm] thinking the Brexit Party briefing for Brexit Party MEPs on what Brexit means might need some work."

Yes, shock horror, the Brexit Party have got what they campaigned for, the UK isolated and unable to influence international rules impacting directly on our trade and economy. It is a shame they are only just waking up to that reality.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The strange case of the unpublished report

Do governments suppress a lot of reports? I am aware that they certainly ignore a great many, or at the very least just pick out the bits that they like, but how many do they commission and then shelve away without them seeing the light of day? I suspect it is more than we would like to think.

Either way, the report into Russian interference in the British political system does not seem to want to go away. This was the tome that was suppressed before the election and which has still not been published.

However, as the Guardian reports, SNP Leader Ian Blackford has now called on the prime minister to begin appointing members of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, necessary to allow the controversial document to be released.

He is absolutely right when he says: “It is unacceptable that your government has repeatedly and intentionally failed to take steps to establish the committee and has sought to escape scrutiny on vital issues,” Blackford writes in a letter that has been shared with the Guardian.

“The public interest and the imperative is and has always been clear: lift your sanction on publishing this report and re-establish the intelligence and security committee so that it can be immediately published.”

The paper explains: A report on Russia’s spying activities against the UK and its attempts to penetrate the British establishment had been prepared by the committee in the last parliament, and had been made ready to publish when the election was called.

Members of the committee saw evidence of Russian infiltration in Conservative political circles, but it is unclear how much of that concern reached the final document, which some sources say was watered down even before it went to Johnson.

Ministers have repeatedly said there are no examples of “successful Russian interference” in the 2016 EU referendum or an election, although there is scepticism as to whether that has been properly investigated

. The report was nevertheless awaiting final clearance from Downing Street, to check it did not contain any classified information, when the election was called. No 10 said it was not possible to clear it in time, a point disputed by the previous chairman of the committee, former MP Dominic Grieve.

Downing Street eventually said after the election that the report was cleared. But its release depends on the appointment of nine cross-party backbench MPs and peers to the committee’s membership, a task that falls to Johnson after consulting with other parties.

Last time, committee members were not appointed until November 2017 – five months after the general election, prompting complaints that “effective and robust oversight of the intelligence community” had been “left in a vacuum for so many months”.

It may be some time before this report enters the public domain.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Has Johnson thrown another dead cat onto the table?

In politics there is a technique known as throwing a dead cat onto the table, entirely metaphorical of course, the objective of which is to distract people from more important matters.

Boris Johnson is a past master at this, or at least that is the charitable view of some of his madcap schemes, so one should be forgiven for thinking that the proposal to move the House of Lords to York is one such instance.

According to the Independent, the prime minister is believed to be keen to take advantage of plans for the restoration of the crumbling Palace of Westminster, which already requires moving some 800 peers to another building for six years from 2025, to carry out the move.

What I am not clear on is how this fits into any wider constitutional review, as it seems that splitting the two houses will just add to expense, bureaucracy and inconvenience. Can you imagine the House of Commons piling onto a train to meet the monarch in York, for example, for the state opening of Parliament?

And what does it change? Putting 800 unelected men and women in the twilight of their political careers into some northern city is hardly going to tackle the disconnect between politicians and the general population. Now if it was the MPs, then that would be a different matter.

If Johnson is serious about constitutional reform then he would abolish the unelected Lords altogether and replace it with an elected second chamber of the regions and nations with half the number of members. He won't do that, because that would mean actually effecting real democratic change and that is not something that is on the Prime Minister's agenda.

Now then, about those Brexit trade deals.....

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The new threat posed by face recognition technology

Back in May 2019, a former Liberal Democrat Councillor in Cardiff went to court to claim that the suspected use of facial recognition technology on him by South Wales police was an unlawful violation of privacy. Ed Bridges alleged that his image was captured by facial recognition cameras when he popped out for a sandwich in his lunch break and, quite rightly, objected to what he saw as a further extension of the surveillance state.

Facial recognition technology maps faces in a crowd and then compares them to a watchlist of images, which can include suspects, missing people and persons of interest to the police. The cameras scan faces in large crowds in public places such as streets, shopping centres, football crowds and music events such as the Notting Hill carnival:

Dan Squires QC, representing Bridges, said: “What AFR [automated facial recognition] enables the police to do is to monitor people’s activity in public in a way they have never done before.”

He said: “The reason AFR represents such a step change is you are able to capture almost instantaneously the biometric data of thousands of people.

“It has profound consequences for privacy and data protection rights, and the legal framework which currently applies to the use of AFR by the police does not ensure those rights are sufficiently protected.”

Just how big a threat to individual privacy and freedom is now becoming apparent, with this article in the New York Times outlining some frightening developments in this technology that leaves it open to widescale abuse.

The paper reports on a company called Clearview AI, which has devised a ground-breaking facial recognition app. You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system — whose backbone is a database of more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites — goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.

According to the paper, Federal and state law enforcement officers said that while they had only limited knowledge of how Clearview works and who is behind it, they had used its app to help solve shoplifting, identity theft, credit card fraud, murder and child sexual exploitation cases:

Until now, technology that readily identifies everyone based on his or her face has been taboo because of its radical erosion of privacy. Tech companies capable of releasing such a tool have refrained from doing so; in 2011, Google’s chairman at the time said it was the one technology the company had held back because it could be used “in a very bad way.” Some large cities, including San Francisco, have barred police from using facial recognition technology.

But without public scrutiny, more than 600 law enforcement agencies have started using Clearview in the past year, according to the company, which declined to provide a list. The computer code underlying its app, analysed by The New York Times, includes programming language to pair it with augmented-reality glasses; users would potentially be able to identify every person they saw. The tool could identify activists at a protest or an attractive stranger on the subway, revealing not just their names but where they lived, what they did and whom they knew.

And it’s not just law enforcement: Clearview has also licensed the app to at least a handful of companies for security purposes.

“The weaponization possibilities of this are endless,” said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. “Imagine a rogue law enforcement officer who wants to stalk potential romantic partners, or a foreign government using this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in jail.”

As the New York Times points out, Facial recognition technology has always been controversial. It makes people nervous about Big Brother. It has a tendency to deliver false matches for certain groups, like people of color. And some facial recognition products used by the police — including Clearview’s — haven’t been vetted by independent experts.

Clearview’s app carries extra risks because law enforcement agencies are uploading sensitive photos to the servers of a company whose ability to protect its data is untested.

The paper says that police departments have had access to facial recognition tools for almost 20 years, but they have historically been limited to searching government-provided images, such as mug shots and driver’s license photos. In recent years, facial recognition algorithms have improved in accuracy, and companies like Amazon offer products that can create a facial recognition program for any database of images.

This goes far beyond anything South Wales Police have used, and underlines the frightening potential of technology that has now fallen into the hands of the private sector, with no guaranteed security for their databases. You could potentially be scanned anywhere, and the person in control of that technology would instantly have access to every piece of data you have put on-line.

But before anybody starts to think this is an effective law enforcement tool, even Clearview admit that it is not always accurate and that mismatches can occur. The company says its tool finds matches up to 75 percent of the time. But the paper say it is unclear how often the tool delivers false matches, because it has not been tested by an independent party such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency that rates the performance of facial recognition algorithms.

“We have no data to suggest this tool is accurate,” said Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, who has studied the government’s use of facial recognition. “The larger the database, the larger the risk of misidentification because of the doppelgänger effect. They’re talking about a massive database of random people they’ve found on the internet.”

The article's conclusion is chilling: Even if Clearview doesn’t make its app publicly available, a copycat company might, now that the taboo is broken. Searching someone by face could become as easy as Googling a name. Strangers would be able to listen in on sensitive conversations, take photos of the participants and know personal secrets. Someone walking down the street would be immediately identifiable — and his or her home address would be only a few clicks away. It would herald the end of public anonymity.

Surely it is time for legislation to protect people's privacy before this technology hits the UK.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Police PR blunder raises alarm

A police counter-terrorist briefing document may well have been designed as “a guide to help them identify and understand the range of organisations they might come across” as they claim, but the clear impression being given is that they are seeking to smear legitimate and non-violent protest groups who are exercising their democratic rights. I am not surprised that those identified in the briefing are angry and confused.

The Guardian reports that the document, which was distributed to medical staff and teachers as part of anti-extremism briefings, included Greenpeace, Peta and other non-violent groups as well as neo-Nazis. The guide, produced by Counter Terrorism Policing, is used across England as part of training for Prevent, the anti-radicalisation scheme designed to catch those at risk of committing terrorist violence:

Last week, police said documents uncovered by the Guardian that listed the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) alongside far-right extremists and jihadists were a local error.

But the list of groups viewed as a potential concern contained in the new 24-page document includes Extinction Rebellion. It also includes Greenpeace – among whose supporters are Dame Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, Gillian Anderson and Joanna Lumley – and the ocean pollution campaigners Sea Shepherd, whose supporters include Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan. Also included is Stop the Badger Cull, which is backed by Sir Brian May, the Queen guitarist.

They appear alongside a number of extremist rightwing groups including Combat 18 and the National Front, as well as National Action, which has been banned for terrorist violence. The last page of an accompanying visual guide seen by the Guardian advises people to report “any concerns identified via this document” using an online portal for reporting suspicious activity that is operated by Counter Terrorism Policing under the slogan: “Action counters terrorism”.

Police insist the guide is not meant to portray all the groups that it features as extremist and thus needing to be reported to them. They said it is meant to boost understanding of the signs and symbols people may come across, and point to a statement in the document that “not all of the signs and symbols noted within this document are of counter terrorism interest”.

However, on the visual guide the disclaimer appears to refer specifically to a set of religious and historical symbols used by white supremacists including “Odin’s Rune’, “SS Runes” and “Thor’s Hammer”. Mainstream leftwing and environmental groups are not similarly marked.

Either somebody is deliberately trying to squash legitimate campaigning organisations or it is time for the authors of this document to have lessons on basic democracy, freedom and the right to protest.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Boris bonged by Big Ben botch-job

I hope you like my attempt at a tabloid-style headline. I rarely reference the Telegraph, largely because it sits behind a big blue firewall, but the latest lead article is irresistible if only because it is so funny.

The paper reports that battle for Big Ben to bong on Brexit night has 'descended into farce after it emerged that a six-figure sum donated by Brexiteers cannot be used to fund the chiming of Parliament's Great Bell.'

I am laughing so much I can barely type, not just because the whole idea was ludicrous, divisive and downright insulting, but, as with many of the bonkers-ideas thrown out from beneath the Prime Minister's blonde thatch, it was half-formed, poorly researched, trivial and deliberately misleading.

For the record, the reason given as to why the rather incredible £150,000 raised so far cannot be used to set the bells ringing on 31 January is because of parliamentary rules on financial donations. Rather predictably this has set off another round of finger-pointing from Leavers, but as ever, they only have themselves to blame.

Don't you think they should have checked the rules before jumping on this particular roller-coaster?

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Have the Welsh Government run out of ideas on the NHS?

When I heard on the radio that Health boards in Wales could face fines for failing to tackle issues around the amount of time it takes ambulances to hand over patients to A&E departments, I did a double take.

Have we really come to the point where Ministers are so powerless to do anything about the stacking up of ambulances outside emergency rooms and 12 hour waits to be treated that they are having to resort to meaningless sanctions to punish hospitals?

The BBC reports that Health Minister Vaughan Gething is to set up a taskforce after a review of amber response times. He said he was "increasingly concerned" and would not rule out fines among a "range of options" to improve things. How exactly they will improve things remains a mystery.

There were 79,150 wasted hours - the equivalent of nine years - last year for crews waiting outside A&E. The number of patients delayed in this way in November 2019 was 513 - the highest number since March 2016. None of this is new.

As an Assembly Member I was raising similar issues ten years ago.  The fact is that the number of hospital beds have shrunk, staff recruitment is difficult especially in the nursing profession. Because beds are full then patients cannot easily be transferred from accident and emergency, this adds to the waiting time to be seen, and that means that ambulances cannot unload their patients. This, in turn, means that the number of ambulances available for emergency calls is diminished and people wait longer to be attended to.

How does a fine, or even an incentive alter this dynamic? In fact what is even meant by a fine? Hospitals are funded by public money. Is the Welsh Secretary seriously thinking of taking some of that money off them as a punishment, thus adding to their deficits, their underfunded services and overworked staff and making the whole situation worse?

The whole system approach, whereby we reduce pressure on hospitals by caring for patients in the community and though primary care centres has been talked about for decades. It involves close collaboration between social care providers (local councils) and health providers (health boards) both in terms of planning and service delivery and funding. We are still a long way from delivering on that vision.

Talk to many health care employees and they will tell you about the wasting of valuable resources, failures to cope with an increasingly complex and expensive care system and problems in liaising or working with social care providers. There is frustration and concern at all levels and in both social care and health care that the system is not working properly and that patients are losing out as a result. A lot of this is due to underfunding, but the failure to reform is also a major factor.

The Health Secretary and the Welsh Government have it within their power to deliver solutions but have failed dismally to do so. Instead they are talking about fines, incentives and task forces to look at the one aspect of health delivery that is a symptom of the problem rather that the cause. It is the surest sign yet that the politicians have run out of ideas and are instead virtue-signalling their own impotence.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Another Boris Johnson claim debunked

We all knew that Boris Johnson was talking nonsense of course, when he claimed that his deal with the EU would not include checks in the Irish Sea, so it is gratifying to be proved right by the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

He has confirmed to the European Parliament that there will be “checks and controls” between Britain and Northern Ireland under the agreement that will govern the UK’s exit from the EU, despite Boris Johnson falsely claiming several times during the general election campaign that there this would not be the case.

The Independent rather charitably suggests that the prime minister could have misunderstood the agreement he had signed. An alternative suggestion is that Johnson was lying to the public as the text of the deal signed in November is clear that there will indeed be checks:

“The implementation of this foresees checks and controls entering the island of Ireland,” Mr Barnier said during a sitting of the European Parliament.

“I look forward to constructive cooperation with British authorities to ensure that all provisions are respected and made operational.”

Mr Barnier had kept quiet during the UK general election campaign, telling anyone who asked him – even in private – that he did not want to say anything that could have political impact and undermine his Brexit deal.

Mr Johnson repeated his claim just on Monday, telling a press conference: “Be in no doubt. We are the government of the United Kingdom. I cannot see any circumstances whatever in which they will be any need for checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to GB.

“The only circumstances in which you could imagine the need for checks coming from GB to NI, as I’ve explained before, is if those goods were going on into Ireland and we had not secured, which I hope and I’m confident we will, a zero-tariff, zero-quota agreement with our friends and partners in the EU.”

During the election campaign he was even more emphatic, saying: “We will make sure that businesses face no extra costs and no checks for stuff being exported from NI to GB.”

Yet more misleading information from the Prime Minister. In fact I have a suggestion: instead of fundraising to allow Big Ben to mark the 31st January point of no return, why don't we use any money raised to have the bell toll whenever Johnson is caught out in a lie of a misleading statement?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Time to revise UK immigration rules

A Law Commission report has confirmed what many of us have known for some time, that immigration rules are “overly complex and unworkable”. As the Guardian reports, the Commission believe that simplifying them in would save the government £70m over the next decade. It may also save many immigrants a huge amount of grief and heartache.

The Law Commission point out that the regulations have quadrupled in length since 2010 and are “comprehensively criticised for being poorly drafted”. When introduced in 1973, immigration rules ran to 40 pages; they now extend across 1,100. The report observes that making them more prescriptive was intended to produce more transparent outcomes but instead rendered them harder to follow:

Nicholas Paines QC, the public law commissioner, said: “For both applicants and case workers, the drafting of the immigration rules and frequent updates makes them too difficult to follow. This has resulted in mistakes that waste time and cost taxpayer money.

“By improving the drafting, restructuring the layout and removing inconsistencies, our recommendations will make a real difference by saving money and increasing public confidence in the rules.”

The need for clarity has become more acute, the Law Commission heard in evidence it received, because more and more applicants are unrepresented and struggle to understand proceedings.

Immigration regulations have an impact on millions of lives every year, the report accepts. “Their structure is confusing and numbering inconsistent. Provisions overlap with identical or near identical wording. The drafting style, often including multiple cross-references, can be impenetrable. The frequency of change fuels complexity.”

The report adds: “It is a basic principle of the rule of law that applicants should understand the requirements they need to fulfil … For the Home Office, benefits include better and speedier decision-making.

“This leads to a potential reduction in administrative reviews, appeals and judicial reviews, and to a system which is easier and cheaper to maintain.” Reforms could result in savings of almost £70m over the next 10 years.

It is little wonder that so few people have any confidence in the current system. Let's hope that government listens to these recommendation.

Monday, January 13, 2020

How will Brexit hit the City?

Our balance of payments has for a long time depended on the financial markets and in particular, on the City of London.

Already, a number of companies are relocated out of the country, losing us jobs and much needed revenue. When I was in Mannheim I was told that property prices in Frankfurt were soaring as a result of financial companies moving their headquarters there from London. The latest threat to the City therefore, must be a matter of concern.

The Guardian reports that the EU will be unashamedly “political” and block the City of London’s access to European markets if Boris Johnson tries to exempt the UK from its laws.The City earns about £205bn a year from European demand for financial services. Trade experts have described the so-called “equivalence” decision as vital for the UK’s financial services sector, which generates 11% of total tax revenues.

British banks, traders and insurance firms will lose their automatic “passporting” rights to work for EU clients at the end of the transition period. After 31 December 2020 they will instead be reliant on the commission providing temporary rights:

A major issue in the EU-UK negotiations over the future relationship concerns the extent to which the British government wants to diverge from the bloc’s rules in various sectors of the economy.

The outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said this week that it would not be appropriate for the UK to be a “rule-taker” in the field of financial services after Brexit.

The European commission president, however, warned of the economic costs of seeking a loose relationship with the EU. Ursula von der Leyen was also speaking in Zagreb following a meeting with Johnson in Downing Street.

“We have to find a good balance between divergence and being close to the single market,” she said. “There is a difference in being a member state and not. And there are trade-offs between regulatory divergence on one side and access to the single market. This room now has to be explored in the coming negotiations. In June we will take stock of the progress.”

The European commission will make a unilateral decision before the summer on whether it recognises British regulations and supervisory bodies as being sufficiently robust for its financial services sector to continue to work for EU-based clients.

This issue underlines how difficult it will be for Boris Johnson to disentangle the UK from Europe. If he is working in the UK's best interests then he will accept that his room for manoeuvre is limited. So far though his rhetoric is taking us in an opposite direction.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

EU settlement scheme delays leave people in limbo

The Independent reports that people are being illegally blocked from getting jobs and renting homes in the UK due to lengthy delays in the Home Office’s EU settlement scheme.

Lawyers claim that spouses of Europeans are waiting months for their applications for settled status after Brexit to be decided on, despite the government saying the process should take one to four days – often leaving them with no formal documentation to prove their status.

The paper quotes one case, in which an Iranian woman married to a Swedish man said she had been driven to a state of permanent anxiety after being blocked from opening a bank account and was unable to get a job while she waited months for a response to her EU settlement application.

Experts said there was a lack of knowledge among employers and landlords about the fact that applicants retain their rights to live and work in Britain while their cases are pending, and warned that the issue was being compounded by delays in the scheme:

Christopher Desira, solicitor at the law firm Seraphus and at the European Commission Representation in the UK, said he had seen multiple cases of people being wrongly refused employment and turned away by landlords while they wait for a response on their settlement applications on the basis that they hadn’t yet got settled status.

He told of one case where the non-EU citizen married to an EU national got a job offer, but was told by the employer that he was not able to work until he was granted settled or pre-settled status. It took three months for his application to be concluded, during which he was unable to earn a living.

“People are facing financial issues because of this, and it is often the most disadvantaged people who don’t have the means to get a lawyer to know how to put pressure on the Home Office to work with them to speed up the application process. They are being left in a state of temporary limbo,” said Mr Desira.

“In an ideal world, the employer will understand that freedom of movement applies until the end of this year, but because of all the uncertainty and confusion around Brexit, that employer may not understand any of this. And they don’t want to take the risk, so they insist on asking to see pre-settled status or settled status when they should not do so. Those affected could take them to court, but this is a costly and long-winded process, so most choose to try to find another job.

“The Home Office are educating everyone, but whatever communication they’re doing for this now, it is not enough. We’ve seen multiple cases, and there will be more because we know there is underreporting on this.”

Luke Piper, legal adviser to the3million, which campaigns for the rights of EU citizens in Britain, said he had seen a number of people who had been refused promotions because of their pending applications, but added that while it was “arguably unlawful” for employers to do this, the issue was only likely to grow. He pointed out that the “certificate of application” – which is issued to people once they have applied under the EU settlement scheme and is supposed to prove their right to live, work and study in the UK for six months – was not being recognised by employers.

“In the real world, do you think employers are going to employ someone who essentially has six months to remain in the UK with the potential for a grant of pre-settled status of settled status?” he said.

The paper says that the latest EU settlement scheme figures published by the Home Office showed that 525,200 applicants – more than one in five – were still waiting for an outcome, fuelling fears that a backlog is building up ahead of Brexit.

These delays are impacting on the quality of life of people who have lived and worked in the UK for years, contributing to our economy, as well as causing great anxiety and uncertainty for the individuals concerned and their families.

Is this what we must expect from this government after Brexit is concluded?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Have the Tories sent Erasmus for an early bath?

The defeat of an amendment tabled by Liberal Democrats, which would have enshrined in law a duty for ministers to try to keep Britain in the Erasmus programme, means that the future is bleak for one of the European Union's most successful programmes.

The amendment would have forced the government to keep the scheme open to UK students after Brexit, providing exchange opportunities at universities around Europe. But the programme spreads its net much wider. For example, Erasmus helps fund work experience in Swansea for apprentices from Mannheim, helping to keep open the two cities twinning links.

I have also come across teacher exchange programmes funded by Erasmus plus, widening the opportunities available to all concerned, including the pupils of the participating schools.

As the Independent reports the House of Commons vote has led college representatives to conclude that there is now “a definite risk” that British students will lose access after the end of this year, when a “transition period” to Brexit concludes:

Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James was among those taking to social media to denounce the outcome, which she branded “disgraceful”.

Following the vote, Lib Dem education spokesperson Layla Moran told The Independent that it should be a “no-brainer” for the government to commit now to Erasmus+.

“Erasmus has transformed the way we think about education,” said Ms Moran. “It has made studying abroad fashionable and affordable.

“Universities warn that no UK-led scheme could ever match the reputation and extensive partnerships that Erasmus has to offer. But rather than voting for our amendment, Conservative MPs are willing to let ministers negotiate away our membership of Erasmus if they think they could do a better job.

“It is time the Tories wake up and smell the coffee – are they in favour of staying in Erasmus or not? Liberal Democrats will fight to stop the Tories taking us out of vital EU programmes, weakening our universities and limiting the horizons of young people.”

So much for taking back control.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Johnson flirts with the far right

I suppose that as his main policy plank is splendid isolation for the United Kingdom, our newly re-elected Prime Minister has to find friends when and where he can. But does he have to embarrass us all by choosing Hungary‘s authoritarian nationalist leader, Viktor Orban as his new best friend?

As the Independent reports, Orban has heaped praise on Boris Johnson, calling him “one of the bravest European politicians”. This comes days after it was revealed that one of Mr Johnson’s top advisers had called for a “special relationship” with the Hungarian government and endorsed its attacks on liberalism:

“I believe a generous and strategic cooperation is needed with the British in the coming period when they are no longer members of the EU,” Mr Orban told journalists.

“I regard Boris Johnson as one of the bravest European politicians,” he said, adding that his eurosceptic Conservative party still won a large majority in December’s general elections despite “the whole world” being against him.

The right-wing leader described Brexit as “a fantastic opportunity”, adding: “I am sure there is a success story in the making there.”

The intervention is the latest episode in the makeshift alliance forming between parts of the Tory party and Fidesz, Mr Orban’s nationalist outfit. Conservative MEPs were previously criticised for standing almost alone among mainstream western European conservatives for refusing to censure Hungary over breaches of the rule of law.

Mr Orban was also one of the first world leaders to be invited to Downing Street after Theresa May took office.

At the helm of his far-right Fidesz party, Mr Orban has centralised power around himself and his allies, cracking down on civil society and monopolising the media.

The government has also been accused of running antisemitic and Islamophobic hate campaigns, notably against Jewish philanthropist George Soros.

This is also the same Viktor Orban whose government was subject to censor by the European Parliament.

In September 2018, more than two-thirds of MEPs backed the censure motion - the first such vote against a member state under EU rule - accusing the Hungarian government of attacks on the media, minorities, and the rule of law.

Not my first choice as our premier European ally.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

On that Harry and Meghan decision

I am no royalist, so I am struggling to understand the reaction of certain media outlets to the decision of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to step down from royal duties and find a different life for themselves.

As long as we are not paying them to shoot off to North America, I don't feel it is really any of our business what they do with their lives.

There are a few tweets on this issue however, which I reproduce below, that sum up the sorry state of much of our media and those who join them in criticising the Sussex's:

I very much identify with the sentiments expressed above. The incipient racism in much of the criticism of Meghan has been depressing. Good luck to them both. I really don't blame them for taking the decision they have.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The emasculation of Parliament?

The Guardian reports on claims by senior MPs that ministers and civil servants are not being properly scrutinised by parliament because of delays in setting up select committees.

They say that despite crucial Brexit policy passing through the Commons and the possibility of conflict in the Middle East, chairs of four committees have said they have not yet been given any indication by Boris Johnson’s government when they will be able to sit again.

Their concern is exacerbated by previous accusations that the prime minister and his close adviser Dominic Cummings have avoided appearances before MPs on these committees:

Since 2010, the members of most of the Commons committees are chosen by a system of internal party elections. But it is up to the leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, working with whips from both sides, to settle on a timetable for those elections.

Parliamentary sources have claimed that the government is delaying the process because of planned departmental mergers which may be postponed.

Senior MPs said they have not yet received any indication that the government will set elections to the committees by next month, as was hoped.

Meg Hillier, the chair of the powerful public accounts committee which scrutinises government spending, said the government’s big majority meant scrutiny was vital.

“We are seeing big promises on policy and projects and need to challenge how realistic they are,” she said. “On the most optimistic plan, committees will not have met for four months on the current timetable. We need to speed up the process.

“Possible changes to government departments should not be an excuse for delay,” she said.

It is these committees that do all the real work in Westminster in holding government to account. Does taking back control mean emasculating Parliament as well? I think we should be told.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Dilemma facing councils on fly-tipping

This article in the Guardian from a few days ago about the rise in fly-tipping in England perfectly illustrates the dilemma being faced by local councils around the UK.

Of course, it is not just England that is experiencing a surge in illegal dumping since 2012, though the article concentrates on that one nation. It is happening in other parts of the UK as well, including Wales. A large part of my caseload as a local councillor is reporting illegal fly-tipping, often material just left in the middle of the street as well as on hidden-away waste land and lanes.

The paper says that fly-tipping incidents in England fell from 1.3m in 2007-08 to 0.7m in 2012-13, but there has been a steady rise since then to 1.1m in 2018-19. Total fines of £1m were levied last year. The million-plus incidents of illegal rubbish dumping in 2018-19 cost English councils £58m to clean up. Most involved household waste being jettisoned from cars or vans by the side of a road.

The paper says that councils are handing out more on-the-spot fines and pursuing more prosecutions. Offending vehicles can be seized and in some cases are crushed. The number seized jumped to 207 last year. However, English councils have lost 60% of their central government funding since 2010, meaning less money is available for action against fly-tippers. Welsh councils are also struggling to make ends meet.

The issue of course is that all councils are trying to cut down on landfill for environmental reasons, but also because the landfill tax and a reducing number of sites where waste can be buried, makes it uneconomic. That means that households are limited in the amount of rubbish they can dispose of legitimately.

All councils are trying to maximise recycling, while at the same time limiting the non-recyclate they will take from taxpayers and companies. Costs of commercial waste disposal are increasing, and individuals are struggling to get rid of items, and surplus domestic waste. None of this excuses illegal fly-tipping.

A lot of this surplus material can be eradicated by better individual management and commitment to recycling. The dilemma for councils however, is that while they are saving money by reducing landfill, they are spending more picking up junk illegally left on the roadside and elsewhere.

Bigger fines will help, but we also need more investment in enforcement. However, the biggest difference could be made if government honoured its obligations to the waste hierarchy and legislated to reduce packaging, and to encourage manufacturers to use materials that lend themselves better to reuse or recycling.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Johnson's 'Festival of Brexit' designed to accentuate divisions

For a Prime Minister who claims to want to heal the divide in our country caused by his championing of Brexit, Boris Johnson has a peculiar way of delivering on his objective.

As the Guardian reports, the UK Government is planning to press ahead with plans for post-Brexit festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 2022 at an estimated cost of £120 million. Of course the two year gap between commitment and delivery is plenty of time for that cost to double.

The paper says that figures from arts institutions have privately expressed concern about the project, which some say is likely to alienate remain-supporting visitors at museums and galleries that are expected to take part.

In addition they say that there had been previous warnings that the idea – announced by Theresa May in 2018 as an initiative that would “strengthen our precious union” – could inflame tensions in Northern Ireland, coming a year after the centenary of Irish partition and on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Irish civil war.

As Liberal Democrat MP, Layla Moran, says: “I’m astounded that the government is going ahead with what is basically a Brexit festival despite everything that is going on. It is a complete waste of money at a time when funding cuts to our schools, hospitals and local services continue despite government announcements to the contrary. The Conservatives are trying to distract us with bread and circuses, but it won’t work.”

If Johnson really wants to heal divisions, he will scrap this idea now and spend the money on essential services instead.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Missing in action

As Donald Trump does his damnedest to start World War Three by assassinating Iran's top general and lining up 52 additional targets, one for each for the American diplomats and citizens who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, the questions on every Briton's lips must be 'where is the Prime Minister?' and 'what idiot made Dominic Raab Foreign Secretary anyway?'

By far the most disturbing aspect of this whole crisis is the President's assertion on Twitter that "We have ... targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture".

Having accused Obama of targeting Iran to secure his own re-election (something the former President did not actually do), Trump has fulfilled his own prophecy, and is using a crisis he manufactured as a means to try and keep him in the White House for another four years.

In the face of such lunacy, the UK should be standing firm. But no, instead we have the Foreign Secretary backing Trump's irresponsible actions, while the Prime Minister hides away on the sun-kissed island of Mustique, drinking vodka martinis (stirred not shaken) and will not be back in work until tomorrow.

In his absence, Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, has been left to chair three emergency Cobra meetings about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. This is not leadership, it is the deliberate creation of a moral black hole to avoid upsetting Trump. Surely, we can expect better from our leaders?

Saturday, January 04, 2020

PM's attempts to shake up civil service off to stuttering start

Having read Tim Shipman's account of the 2016 EU referendum it was already clear to me that Boris Johnson's SpAd, Dominic Cummings does not think much of the civil service nor of the way that we are governed.

It is no surprise therefore that he has already put in motion calls to recruit his sort of people to take some of the key positions in the new Tory Government, blogging in particular that he is keen to work with “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”.

Johnson is also proposing changes to the way that the civil service operates, including making those in the most senior positions take regular exams to prove that they are up to their jobs, and ending the “merry-go-round” of officials changing jobs every 18 months. He also wants to restructure government departments. He and Cummings believe that senior government officials are “woefully unprepared” for the sweeping changes they want to implement.

As sure as night follows day however, the institutional conservatism of government has kicked back, and given what is being proposed is the politicisation of our civil service, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Guardian reports that one of the UK’s top employment lawyers has said Cummings' blogpost - in which he describes who should apply for jobs at No.10, and which circumvented the usual Whitehall recruitment process, being peppered with the type of combative language Cummings has become known for – is “quite outrageous from an employment law perspective”.

Meanwhile, Mark Serwotka, the head of Britain’s biggest civil servants’ union, said that Cummings’ comment: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now”, implied that he “wants to hire and fire at will” and revealed an anti-trade union mentality that would be “strenuously resisted”.

In another article in the Guardian, Prospect’s deputy general secretary, Garry Graham, whose union represents government-employed specialists and scientists, said a previous test applied to Home Office staff before promotion was discriminatory:

“The idea of annual exams may be a good headline, but it risks putting the cart before the horse and introducing more bureaucracy and potential discrimination into the system,” he said.

In March, the government paid out £1m to 49 Home Office employees who had been told they would need to undertake a core skills assessment (CSA) if they were to be considered for promotion, which they all subsequently failed.

CSAs have been long criticised by unions that support Home Office staff, which say success rates for BME workers, or those older than 35, have been significantly lower than that of other employees.

Tribunal claims were initiated against the Home Office, which disputed the claims but agreed partway through the hearing, on 27 February, to settle, without admission of liability, and pay the claimants compensation totalling more than £1m.

Graham also questioned whether the new reforms announced by “diktat” will be successful without consultation of staff.

“Ultimately any civil service reform package stands the best chance of success if it is conceived together with civil servants, rather than issued by diktat from the centre,” he said.

If this sounds all very 'Yes, Prime Minister' then that maybe because it is. However, the objections are not without merit. Our system is designed to prevent the likes of Johnson and Cummings riding roughshod over it for a reason, to better protect the democracy that we hold sacrosanct and to ensure that those administering government stay above the fray.

If Johnson and Cummings are determined to take on the establishment then this may be a battle worth watching. I will go and buy some popcorn now.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Tory Government still havent convinced business on their Brexit plans

Boris Johnson may talk a good story, but he has still not convinced the people who matter that his so-called timetable for exiting the EU and delivering a trade deal is deliverable.

Any idea that the Tories were the party of business was lost some time ago in the mists of Brexit fantasy, however now that we are faced with an 80 seat Tory majority, a Prime Minister who struggles with the truth, and the cliff edge looking a much more realistic destiny, the economy's only hope is that business confidence somehow holds up.

Alas, if this Guardian article is anything to go by, businesses are still having trouble believing anything they are told by this government. The paper says that a Bank of England survey has found that growing numbers of business leaders in the UK believe Brexit uncertainty will take longer to resolve than Boris Johnson pledged before the election:

According to the central bank’s decision maker panel, which surveys almost 3,000 chief financial officers from small, medium and large UK firms, as many as 42% said they thought the lack of clarity over Brexit that their business faced would not lift until at least 2021, up from 34% in November.

The findings come as factory output across the UK plunged in December at the fastest rate in almost seven and a half years, according to a separate survey. Both Brexit uncertainty and a wider manufacturing downturn around the world weighed on businesses.

In a sign of the stress firms face, IHS Markit and the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply said that manufacturing production levels fell more in December than they had since July 2012. Factory output also fell sharply in Germany and other EU nations. Activity levels have slumped around the world as the US-China trade dispute continues.

Nearly half the firms surveyed still class Brexit as an important source of uncertainty for their business, leaving the economy poised on a precipice in terms of business confidence and future prosperity.

Without certainty, there will be no investment and that means that any hope of better output and productivity may well be dashed. Despite Boris Johnson's fantasies Brexit is going to be a major jolt to the country's economy and our standard of living. This survey just adds to that expectation.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Federal judge blocks ID requirement for voting due to racial discrimination

The Independent reports on an interesting case in the United States where a federal judge has blocked North Carolina’s new voter identification law, citing the state's “sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression”:

The decision by US district court judge Loretta Biggs will prevent state officials from requiring voters to show identification in the 2020 presidential election after critics said the law unfairly targets African-Americans.

North Carolina could be a key state in this year’s election as voters chose Donald Trump in the last presidential vote but also elected a Democratic governor in 2016.

Republican leaders in the state House and Senate have asked North Carolina’s Department of Justice to appeal Judge Biggs’ decision, which blocks the law until a lawsuit filed by the state NAACP and others is resolved.

“North Carolina has a sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression stretching back to the time of slavery, through the era of Jim Crow, and, crucially, continuing up to the present day,” Judge Biggs wrote.

The judge said the newest version of the law was similar to a 2013 law that was struck down by a federal appeals court in 2016.

In that case, the court said voting restrictions were approved with intentional racial discrimination in mind and the law targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.

Although this ruling has no repercussions for the UK, it does underline that in most cases the introduction of a photo ID requirement for voting in advanced democracies is done for the purposes of voter suppression. Boris Johnson should take note.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

More lies from Boris Johnson in New Year message

Despite pledging in his New Year message to end the “rancour and uncertainty” of 2019, and who claiming he wants to reach out to remainers, Boris Johnson continues to confound and frustrate any attempt at bringing the country together.

As the Independent reports, the Prime Minister's New Year message, issued as he was enjoying a luxury break on the Caribbean paradise of Mustique, in a reputed £40,000-a-week villa with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, was just more of the same nonsense with which he bewitched a sizeable number of voters on 12th December.

Johnson insisted he was poised to begin cooking his “oven ready” deal for leaving the EU – a day after Brussels predicted he would be forced into yet another U-turn. He also reheated previously demolished claims that the NHS is about to enjoy “a record funding settlement”, with 40 new hospitals and 50,000 more nurses.

On Monday, Phil Hogan, the EU trade commissioner, predicted Mr Johnson will be forced to abandon his “stunt” of refusing to extend the post-Brexit transition period beyond 2020, because no trade deal will be ready.

But, in his message, the prime minister claimed: “That oven-ready deal I talked about so much during the election campaign has already had its plastic covering pierced and been placed in the microwave.

“We got down to work immediately after the election. The necessary legislation has already begun its passage through parliament and, once MPs return to Westminster, we’ll waste no time in finishing the job.”

Ministers have been forced to acknowledge that there is currently cash for six new hospitals only and that their target is to recruit 31,000 nurses – with a further 19,000 to be retained.

Similarly, the £20.5bn pledged to the NHS by 2024, in real terms, is smaller than the increase it received under Labour in the run-up to 2010.

Yet Mr Johnson said: “One our first actions will be to pass a bill enshrining in law a record funding settlement for the NHS, providing an extra £34bn a year.

“We will undertake the largest hospital building programme in living memory, delivering 40 new hospitals and 20 upgrades.

“We’ll ensure there are 50,000 more nurses, 6,000 more GPs, and 50 million more GP surgery appointments.”

As acting Liberal Democrats Leader, Ed Davey says, if the prime minister really wants to unite the country, he has to learn how to tell the truth.

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