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Monday, April 19, 2021

An unethical form of coercion

As if we needed reminding why vaccine passports are a bad idea, the Independent reports that more than 1,000 clergymen and women from across the UK have written to Boris Johnson to warn against them, describing these passports as an "unethical form of coercion". They also claim the documents could herald a "surveillance state":

The message is contained in an open letter from ministers from a number of different Christian faiths.

As lockdown restrictions ease, the certificates could play a role in allowing the safe reopening of theatres and nightclubs.

Significantly, however, they have not been included in a series of pilot projects of large scale events due to get underway shortly.

In the letter the group say introducing passports would create a "medical apartheid".

They add: "This scheme has the potential to bring about the end of liberal democracy as we know it and to create a surveillance state in which the government uses technology to control certain aspects of citizens’ lives.

"As such, this constitutes one of the most dangerous policy proposals ever to be made in the history of British politics."

The ministers also threaten to ignore any potential restrictions which would ask them to refuse entry to their churches to anyone without a vaccine passport.

And so say all of us.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

More lobbying allegations to emerge?

The Independent reports on the views of Lord Evans, the head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who believes that Government ministers’ financial ties to private companies should be scrutinised more closely.

Lord Evans, whose watchdog monitors standards among holders of public office, said that “a number of allegations” in the past year “haven’t been completely investigated”, adding that it could prove “very corrosive” if such cases are left unresolved.

He has also highlighted the fact that the post of independent adviser to the prime minister on ministerial interests has been left vacant since November, following the resignation of Sir Alex Allan, and that – even when the role is fulfilled – such advisers don’t have the power to launch investigations:

“At the moment they have to wait to be asked, and that means the perception might be that this is not as independent a role as it might be,” Lord Evans said during BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.

“I think there's an opportunity there to modernise this role and to ensure that [its holder is] able to allay public concerns as they arise.”

Sir Alex stepped down from his post after prime minister Boris Johnson stood by home secretary Priti Patel in the wake of a report authored by the independent adviser which described Patel’s conduct towards members of the civil service as “behaviour that can be described as bullying”.

Other government officials have also demanded greater oversight of ministerial interests after revelations that former prime minister David Cameron lobbied ministers including chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Matt Hancock on behalf of his employer, Greensill Capital, via texts, emails and “private drinks” events.

Former cabinet secretary Lord Wilson suggested that ministers should be banned from lobbying on behalf of companies who are paying them, and joined calls for the prime minister’s independent adviser to be “given the power to initiate investigations”.

In a letter to The Times, he wrote that lobbying is “an inevitable part of public life” but added that there must be “no hint of hint of corruption, no suggestion of cosy deals without due process, no suspicion of 'old boy' networks.

“Although it is difficult to legislate for morality, the Greensill and other affairs now emerging certainly suggest a need to toughen our safeguards. Greater openness is important,” he wrote, adding that he would “ban any former minister or senior official from lobbying government on behalf of any business that was paying them in whatever capacity”.

Somehow, one gets the impression that this is one deluge that will be impossible to stop.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Tory MPs vote against register for stalkers and domestic abusers

Given that the Tories are the alleged party of law and order, Thursday's vote on amendments to the domestic abuse bill must have been quite painful for some MPs. For not only did they allow themselves to be outflanked by the opposition but, in doing so, they failed to support measures that may have helped victims.

The Guardian reports that the government is facing growing anger after voting against putting serial stalkers and domestic abusers on a national register, despite briefing they were likely to support the measures following the death of Sarah Everard:

Conservative MPs voted against amendments to the domestic abuse bill on Thursday that would have placed serial domestic abusers and stalkers on the current Violent and Sex Offender Register (Visor).

MPs also voted down House of Lords-supported amendments that would have given family court judges training on sexual abuse and provided greater protection to migrant victims of domestic violence.

The stalking amendment gained overwhelming support in the Lords last month and the home secretary, Priti Patel, suggested the government was likely to support the measures, telling MPs: “There is something about perpetrators and their serial offending that has to be addressed. There is no question about that at all … I will be very candid: we will look at all measures.”

After the death of Sarah Everard, government sources told the Sunday Times that the move also had the backing of the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, while a Change.org petition urging the government to introduce the stalkers’ register has attracted almost 250,000 signatures.

All but two Conservative MPs voted against the amendment to add persistent stalkers and domestic abusers to a national register. It was defeated 351 to 227.

Domestic abuse and stalking survivors and campaigners were disappointed and frustrated, said Sophie Francis-Cansfield, the senior campaigns and policy officer at Women’s Aid.

“Domestic abuse remains underreported and only a small proportion of survivors see criminal sanctions against their perpetrator – a register could have been a useful tool,” she said. “We have to find ways to proactively hold perpetrators to account and prioritise survivors’ safety.”

The domestic abuse campaigner David Challen, whose mother, Sally Challen, spent decades as a victim of her husband’s coercive and controlling behaviour, said the government was putting countless lives at risk by not creating a register to monitor abusers. “Abusers and stalkers commit a pattern of violent acts across multiple victims, this register was a vital opportunity to track and stop this violence,” he said.

The decision to exclude migrant women from protections offered under the new bill was “deeply troubling”, said Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters, which is taking part in a government pilot project to support migrant women and address an “evidence gap” around the need for support. “Copious evidence already exists,” she said. “The pilot is no substitute to the need for meaningful, long-term measures of protection for some of the most vulnerable women in our society. We will not be celebrating the bill when it becomes law because it is not a bill for all women.”

Let's hope that the Lords reinstate these amendments and send them back for reconsideration.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Is the lobbying watchdog fit for purpose?

As the David Cameron/Greensill scandal continues to grow with more revelations spilling out from Commons Committee inquiries the question has to be asked as to what the watchdog set up to stop this sort of thing has been doing?

According to the Mirror, they are effectively toothless with only 108 appointments out of the 34,000 people leaving the civil service being scrutinised last year:

Lord Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), warned of the challenges scrutinising new jobs for officials as he said there did not appear to be "any boundaries at all" between civil servants and the private sector.

The “revolving door” of top officials joining businesses has created the assumption among them that they will be “looked after” by the next cohort of officials, he told MPs.

It comes as Cabinet Secretary Simon Case told all Whitehall departments to notify him of any senior officials with paid jobs outside Government by the end of the week.

In an appearance before the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), Lord Pickles demanded a "full and frank" explanation over how a top civil servant was allowed to work as a part-time adviser at Greensill Capital while still in Whitehall.

He said he had been “surprised” to discover that Bill Crothers’ position at the now collapsed firm was green lit by the Cabinet Office in September 2015, despite the fact that he did not leave his civil service role until November that year.

"I mean, if Mr Crothers had decided he wanted to have a milk round or something, I don't think we would be terribly worried," Lord Pickles said.

"But his particular position, in terms of running procurement and working for a commercial organisation, is something that does require a full and frank and transparent explanation."

Lord Pickles said the case "highlights a number of anomalies" in vetting of ex-ministers and civil servants, adding: "There does not seem to have been any boundaries at all.”

He said he was "really unhappy" with gaps in the ethics system and has been "warning of the possibility of a scandal" for some time.

Lord Pickles told MPs: "I was worried that there was an element of a tick the box in terms of the responses that were coming from departments.

"Perhaps uncharitably I had the vaguest feeling that you might be looking at a cohort entitlement, whereby the existing cohort looked after the cohort that just left, in assumption that the cohort that was coming up would look after them."

He warned that most of the problems were due to "a lack of leadership from those in authority", blaming frontbench politicians on all sides and civil service bosses.

"Those who have power have a responsibility to set a very clear tone," he said.

Pickles is concerned that a more effective system would cost too much to implement but if that is price of restoring confidence in government then it has to be done.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Home Secretary's policies in breach of human rights

If you ever wondered why the Tories want to repeal human rights legislation then this Guardian article may offer up a clue. The paper reports that a landmark court ruling has held the home secretary, Priti Patel, accountable for failures in ensuring that deaths in immigration detention centres are properly investigated:

Two judges in the immigration court ruled on Wednesday that three of the home secretary’s detention policies breached human rights rules and that she could not frustrate or undermine inquiries into these deaths.

Lawal proved to be a key witness, but the Home Office tried to deport him five days after the death before he could provide any evidence. He took the case to the high court and a judge halted his removal.

Lawal gave evidence in person at the inquest in November 2020. The inquest jury found that Okwurime had died unnaturally, as a result of neglect following a subarachnoid haemorrhage, which can rupture due to hypertension. His blood pressure reading on 22 August 2019 showed hypertension. The jury found that this reading was not repeated as a result of multiple failures to adhere to healthcare policy. Given these opportunities to repeat this basic medical test on a vulnerable person, neglect contributed to the death.

Lawal’s legal challenge, which resulted in the ruling, focused on whether the home secretary can remove a potential witness to a death in custody before it is clear whether they will be needed as a witness.

The judges found that the home secretary’s decision to remove Lawal to Nigeria was unlawful as she had failed to take reasonable steps to secure his evidence relating to Okwurime’s death before starting removal proceedings.

A replacement policy in August 2020 was also found to be unlawful as it failed to identify and take steps to secure the evidence of those who may have relevant information about a death in detention.

The home secretary’s current policy was found to be “legally deficient”. The judges found that the absence of a policy to direct what should happen following a death in immigration detention was unlawful and concluded that there needed to be such a policy.

Lawal’s solicitor, Jamie Bell of Duncan Lewis solicitors, said: “This case demonstrates the cavalier attitude of the Home Office when enforcing removals. Despite a tragic death within a detention centre, the home secretary did not hesitate to maintain her plan to remove potential witnesses by charter flight, ignoring anyone who wished to come forward to give evidence.”

It is appalling that it has taken a court hearing to highlight these deficiencies and stop this deportation. Thank goodness for the courts.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Probe into unsuitable asylum seeker accommodation

At last some accountability for the Home Office with the Guardian reporting that MPs and peers from the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on immigration detention have agreed to proceed with an inquiry into the government's use of sites such as military barracks to accommodate asylum seekers.

Members of the group have described the Home Office’s use of large-scale, institutional sites as “quasi-detention”, saying that although the likes of Napier barracks in Folkestone are not technically immigration detention the accommodation shares many features with it.

The group say these include isolation from the wider community and related difficulties accessing medical and legal support, visible security measures such as use of patrols and barbed wire, reduced levels of privacy and restriction of movement such as signing in and signing out and curfews.

Alison Thewliss MP, the chair of the APPG, said: “The recent report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) on this type of contingency accommodation underlined serious deficiencies in provision. Indeed, the group has written on a number of occasions to ministers regarding concerns such as ineffective safeguarding, unsanitary conditions, inadequate social distancing, and many other issues besides.

“Responses – when they have arrived – have fallen way short, and failed to provide any sort of reassurance. It remains a significant concern that people are being transferred to Napier barracks given the nature of the complaints that many have made about the conditions there. Given the serious nature of the concerns raised, the group feels it is appropriate to undertake an inquiry to properly examine the conditions that people are being asked to endure”.

A Home Office spokesperson said that asylum seekers at Napier have the same access to health services as other members of the community and denied that a curfew has operated at the barracks.

The news comes as at least 10 new legal challenges have been launched by asylum seekers transferred to Napier over the last few days.

It is thought that about 45 asylum seekers have been moved there since 9 April after the Home Office moved out the last of the previous group accommodated there this month. Up to 400 people have been housed at Napier since it opened as asylum accommodation in September 2020, half of whom contracted Covid following an outbreak there.

Many of the new residents at Napier are understood to have arrived in the UK on small boats in recent weeks. Some have been identified as victims of torture and potential victims of trafficking. The new legal actions focus on claims that the Home Office has failed to carry out vulnerability assessments and that some of those accommodated there should not be there due to their past experiences.

This accommodation is not fit for purpose and this investigation is very welcome.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The high price being paid by British companies for Brexit

Amongst all the other news this week, we must not lose sight of the fact that the government's insistence on a hardline Brexit is continuing to hamper the UK economy's recovery.

The Independent reports on a new survey that has found Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal with the EU has put the future of many exporting businesses at risk, with 41 per cent reporting decreased overseas sales in the first three months of the new arrangements:

The British Chambers of Commerce called on the UK government to get back round the table with the EU for fresh negotiations to lower some of the barriers to trade created by Mr Johnson’s Christmas Eve Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

While some of the collapse in trade with continental Europe was due to the Covid pandemic, the BCC said many firms were blaming Brexit for shipping delays, increased cost of transporting goods and extensive new paperwork requirements.

And the group dismissed ministers’ claims that the difficulties experienced by exporters were down to “teething problems” following the transition out of the EU’s single market and customs union on 1 January.

Instead, co-executive director Hannah Essex warned: “They are structural issues that, if they continue to go unaddressed, could lead to long-term, potentially irreversible weakness in the UK export sector.”


The paper says the report comes ahead of the hotly-anticipated release on Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics of trade figures for February, which will be keenly studied for evidence of the long-term impact of Brexit on exports to the EU, after the government blamed teething troubles for a staggering 41 per cent (£5.6bn) fall in sales to the bloc in January:

One exporter, Alfred van Pelt from Somerset-based clothing and accessories wholesaler Something Different, said sales to the 27 EU member states had “collapsed dramatically” since the transition.

“Not only did this cause an immediate drop in turnover and the need for redundancies, but also killed a massive growth opportunity of our business. Our foreign investor had plans for the UK entity to become a European distribution hub.

“This is now no longer on the cards as the only distribution that can be done from within the UK cost effectively is to UK postcode addresses.”

Project fear has become project reality.

Monday, April 12, 2021

PM puts union in peril

Anybody watching the Prime Minister's performances from one of the devolved nations during the last 18 months will already know this, but at last it is being acknowledged in the UK media a the Guardian reports on the views of Sir Philip Rycroft, who was permanent secretary to the Brexit department until 2019.

He has worked with Professor Michael Kenny and researchers from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, to look at two decades of devolution from inside UK state machinery, concluding that the pandemic has seeded the idea of a prime minister “who speaks for England alone” as relations between the four nations of the UK deteriorate amid “deep-rooted complacency”. 

They add that there is widespread ignorance towards the union, meaning ministers can be kept in the dark about major reforms with little consideration for the four nations:

His damning conclusion says the 300-year-old union is in deep peril and even major political ructions such as the close-run 2014 Scottish referendum and the following year’s SNP landslide prompted little soul-searching in Westminster.

Rycroft said the pandemic had deepened the crisis with a breakdown of communications with central government and the demonstration to citizens that devolved leaders could chart their own course.

Boris Johnson’s “union unit” in the cabinet has been plagued by infighting over strategy amid growing momentum for a second referendum on Scottish independence and the deterioration of relations in Northern Ireland following the Brexit deal. In recent days clashes described as the worst street violence in years have taken place.

Though public messaging was coordinated at the start of the coronavirus crisis, cracks appeared as Johnson announced the reopening of schools in late spring 2020 before agreeing it with devolved nations, and ceased Cobra meetings until the autumn, replacing them with new committees with no devolved representation.

With little consultation and as Johnson’s decisions on reopening society began to appear unpopular, devolved leaders charted a different course. “As other UK nations pursue different lockdown rules and messaging, the public may be adapting to the strange idea of a prime minister who speaks for England alone,” Rycroft said.

Rycroft’s co-author, Prof Michael Kenny, said it was political decision-making, not devolution itself, that caused widening divisions. “It was dismantled by political decisions primarily made by No 10.”

Rycroft said Johnson had a “muscular brand of unionism” that asserted the value of the union rather than demonstrating it, appearing reluctant to share platforms with first ministers.

The report’s conclusion highlights that Conservative scepticism of devolution is also flourishing anew, as evidenced in Johnson’s unguarded comments to MPs about devolution in Scotland being “a disaster”.

Rycroft said the instinct to preserve the union was “not in the bloodstream of the UK state” in the same way concern for the territorial settlement was at the forefront of policymaking in countries such as Canada and Spain.

His suggestion that there is an ingrained tendency to “muddle through” relations with the union with no defined strategy has been well known in devolved administrations from the very beginning of devolution. 

He says that there has been an over-reliance on informal backchannels while the main intergovernmental committees have at times been “largely tokenistic”, with devolution issues often ranked as a low priority by some of Whitehall’s main departments. This is very much as it was in 1999, the only surprising thing being that it has not improved in twenty two years but got worse.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Brexit and Belfast - The consequences of Boris Johnson's carelessness

One of the consequences of the sad death of Prince Phillip on Friday is that it pushed the increasing unrest in Northern Ireland off the main news channels. This is unfortunate, because not only does the world and the UK Government in particular, need to be focussing on finding a solution to the problems faced there, but the appalling consequences of an unsustainable and unthinking Brexit agreement needs to be highlighted at every opportunity.

In yesterday's Guardian, Jonathan Freedland nails the problem. He makes it clear that the origins of the current violence are many and complex but his conclusion is damning about Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers in the government:

This is the ineluctable logic of Brexit. Once Britain chose to be outside the single market and customs union while the Irish republic remained inside, there would always have to be a border. The only question was where. One option was a land border on the island of Ireland, once again separating north and south – which would appal nationalists. The other was a frontier in the Irish Sea, appalling unionists. Boris Johnson swore blind that he would never agree to any such thing, only to do exactly that – devising, negotiating, signing and passing into law the Northern Ireland protocol, which gives that part of the UK a separate status. The result is that loyalists feel that, once again, they have both lost out to the nationalists and been betrayed by London.

Of course, once Johnson had decided to break his own solemn pledge, loyalism and unionism were always going to be disaffected. But he has made things so much worse. Incredibly, the prime minister of the United Kingdom saw fit to do nothing at all until 9.33pm on the sixth day of unrest, when he issued a tweet calling for an end to violence. The former civil servant Tom Fletcher, who once had responsibility for Northern Ireland in Downing Street, tweeted that “there were moments when PM had to rip up grid, cancel break, let people down, stay up late, hit phones, spend, flatter, arm twist and do nothing else for week”. This, wrote Fletcher, was just such a moment. Yet Johnson is doing none of those things. What’s worse, if he did decide to get a grip, who among us thinks he would be capable of it? The patience, the diplomatic nous, the grasp of detail, the ingenuity and empathy required in such a situation – Johnson has none of them.

OK, so maybe he could delegate. Except even the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, wasn’t actually in Northern Ireland until Thursday, Lewis being the latest holder of the post to embody the government’s disregard – some might say contempt – for that part of the UK. Recall his predecessor, Karen Bradley, confessing that she had only just learned that “nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.” An exception was the diligent Julian Smith, who naturally was sacked for insufficient fealty to Brexit.

The obligation now is to make the protocol work, to minimise the tension it causes, which will demand flexibility from both London and Brussels. But it will always be a sisyphean task, because the protocol is an adjunct of Brexit – and Brexit took a wrecking ball to the delicate mechanism that was so painstakingly assembled 23 years ago. I don’t believe Johnson and his fellow Brexiters actively sought the unravelling of peace in Northern Ireland. In a way, it is worse than that. They were literally careless of the heartbreak and grief that had scarred that place. They did not care.

This is another fine mess Johnson has created.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

A tribute to Kirsty Williams

This is my tribute to Kirsty Williams published in the latest edition of Liberator magazine:

When I first met Kirsty Williams, she was a recent graduate living with her parents in Llanelli, having been brought into the Liberal Democrats a few years earlier by her teacher, the late and much-missed Nick Burree.

She had just won (or possibly lost) the toss of a coin and had been appointed the agent in a local council by-election on the now defunct Llanelli Borough Council in a ward briefly held on Dyfed County Council by the current Conservative Secretary of State for Justice. The other half of this act of chance was the candidate.

It is fair to say that there was not much experience of community campaigning in Llanelli, but Kirsty took on the role enthusiastically. Perhaps. though she should not have listened to those who told her election day was a formal occasion. I am sure she still regrets wearing high heels for the good morning delivery.

By this time, I had been a Swansea Councillor for a decade and was involved in helping to run the Welsh Party, as a result I brought Kirsty to meetings and got her involved at a national level.

She was asked to speak at a Welsh Party Conference rally and made a huge impression on everybody there. Subsequently, Kirsty came on board as part of the small team of politicians tasked with running the 1997 General Election in Wales.

At the same time, she agreed to be our candidate in the Ogmore constituency, an area we had not contested for some considerable time. It was my turn to be her agent, though, apart from one public meeting, neither of us spent much time there, concentrating instead in helping Richard Livsey regain Brecon and Radnorshire, and organising daily media conferences.

Kirsty was heavily involved in the 1997 referendum campaign that narrowly voted in favour of setting up a Welsh Assembly and was subsequently appointed as the Welsh Liberal Democrats representative on the National Assembly Advisory Group by the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, tasked with drawing up the first standing orders for the nascent body.

During this period she was also thinking about her own future, showing the sort of single-minded determination that has characterised her political career by winning a selection battle to be the candidate in Brecon and Radnorshire against local councillor and the future MP for the area, Roger Williams.

In May 1999, Kirsty was elected as the Assembly Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and almost immediately thrown into the deep end as chair of the body’s Health and Social Care Committee and as the party’s health spokesperson.

She embraced the role and made it her own, impressing everybody with the way she quickly became an authority on health matters and marshalled experts within the party to support her work.

In the 2006 Welsh Yearbook Political Awards, she was voted "Member to Watch 2006”.

 

The biggest test of leadership for Kirsty came with the decision of the group after the 2007 Assembly elections, by a slim majority, to become part of a rainbow coalition government with Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives.

 

It was a decision that Kirsty and I bitterly opposed, taking our resistance to the Welsh Executive, and a subsequent special party conference. The failure of that initiative led eventually to the resignation of Mike German as Welsh Party leader, and on 8 December 2008, Kirsty became leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, having defeated Cardiff Central Assembly Member, Jenny Randerson.

 

Unfortunately, Kirsty’s first Assembly election as leader was a hard one. The party’s agreement to enter a coalition at a UK level had left us defending some difficult decisions and contending with growing unpopularity.

 

As a group we made our opposition to the tripling of tuition fees clear and struggled to keep up with a raft of policies and budget announcements, so as to defend them in the chamber and build our own initiatives around them. At one stage Kirsty had to publicly admonish Vince Cable for proposing that a planned £13bn defence training academy at St Athan be scrapped, without first notifying her or consulting us.

 

As a result, we barely survived the 2011 election, being reduced from six AMs to five, largely as a result of a small reduction in the Plaid Cymru vote that enabled us to hold on in the regions. Kirsty comfortably held onto her Brecon and Radnorshire seat due to her own personal popularity and hard work.

 

The party though was in a strong position to influence the agenda of the Welsh Government, with Labour having failed to secure a majority and not wishing to enter into another coalition.

 

As Finance spokesperson, I worked under Kirsty’s leadership to ensure that we gained significant concessions in return for our support in getting Labour’s budget passed.

 

In 2011, we agreed to support the Welsh Labour Government's 2012–2013 £14.5bn Budget on the basis, amongst other things, of securing the Welsh Pupil Premium, an extra £20m to spend on the education of the poorest pupils.

 

Teaching Unions welcomed the deal, with ATL Cymru director Philip Dixon saying, "Our children are our future and investment in them is investment for all. Labour and the Lib Dems deserve credit for ensuring that our children, especially those in most need, will now get a better start in life.”

 

In 2013, we more than doubled investment for the Welsh Pupil Premium in exchange for abstaining on the Welsh government's annual budget. In 2012, the Welsh Government agreed to take forward the Welsh Liberal Democrat idea of a Health Technology Fund to allow patients better access to innovative treatments. 

 

The following year, under Kirsty’s leadership we got a further £9.5m investment into the Health Technology Fund as well as the establishment of a £50m Intermediate Care Fund to drive integration of health, social services and housing

 

In December 2012, Kirsty won ITV Wales' Assembly Member of the Year Award in a ceremony at Cardiff's City Hall. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2013 she was appointed a Commander of the British Empire for public and political service.

 

Kirsty has never forgotten her roots as health spokesperson and in fact retained that role throughout her leadership, taking up the cause of a long-running ‘More Nurses’ campaign for a law requiring minimum staffing levels for nurses in Welsh hospitals.

 

She was successful in a legislative ballot on 11th December 2013 and given leave to proceed with her Bill. On 21 March 2016 the Nurse Staffing Levels Bill became law in Wales, one of only two private members bills to be passed that term, the other was my own on Park Homes.

 

Nevertheless, the 2016 Assembly elections were to prove even more difficult than those five years earlier. The Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly group was all but wiped out as a result of continued unpopularity from the coalition and a rise in the UKIP vote in anticipation of the Brexit referendum six weeks later.

 

Only Kirsty held her seat, with an increased majority and, as the sole Liberal Democrat representative in the new Assembly, she stood down as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats the day after the election.

 

On the first day of plenary she voted with the Government on the appointment of the First Minister effectively torpedoing a Conservative/Plaid Cymru/UKIP attempt to put Leanne Wood into the office.


Labour though only had 29 seats and after consulting with a special Welsh Liberal Democrats conference, Kirsty agreed to become Education Secretary to enact a programme that included our policies on a wide range of areas, including reducing infant class sizes, employing more nurses, in more settings, through an extended nurse staffing levels law, funding 20,000 extra affordable homes, introducing a new ‘Rent to Own’ housing model and ending mental health discrimination.

All of those policies have been put in place over the last five years during a period as a government minister in which Kirsty has shown what an outstanding political talent she is, demonstrating what Welsh Liberal Democrats can really do when given the opportunity.

The reforms that Kirsty has brought in as Education Minister are not just ground-breaking and far-reaching but will benefit young people for some considerable time. She has been the stand-out performer in the cabinet during the pandemic, handling the crisis with the sort of competence and imagination that Westminster has been crying out for.

While MPs were squabbling amongst themselves over the campaign led by Marcus Rashford to provide free meals for poorer children during the school holidays in England, Kirsty got on with the job. She put £11 million aside to provide free school meals over all holidays until at least Easter 2021, determined that no child should go hungry.

Kirsty also provided over £420,000 to help to deliver free meals to students who are shielding or self-isolating, announced that new starter teachers will receive an 8.48% pay rise, backdated to 1st September, and provided £2.3 million for schools and colleges to make face masks available for students so that they and staff felt confident and safe to return to their learning environment.

She introduced a capital grant for schools so they could accommodate smaller class sizes and ensured that all schools in Wales have superfast internet. She has also put in place a new school curriculum, which introduces a whole school approach to mental health, truly inclusive lessons on relationships and sexuality, a modern approach to modern languages, trusts teachers by giving them the freedom to be creative with lessons, and makes Welsh history, citizenship and identity compulsory for all pupils.

In addition, Kirsty has announced an extra £30 million to develop new Welsh- medium education. This capital investment aims to help reach the longstanding target of one million Welsh speakers by 2050, by supporting young learners to become Welsh speakers by the time they leave school.

I am proud to have worked alongside Kirsty and to see what she has achieved as an individual and as a Welsh Liberal Democrat. With her decision to stand down in the forthcoming election she has left a massive gap both in the party and in the Senedd itself.

Once more we face a difficult election, this time without Kirsty’s popularity and experience to guarantee us representation in the new Senedd and to help us move forward. After twenty-three years in front line politics, she has left Wales in better shape than when she started. Now, at last, she can rest and enjoy some family life.


Friday, April 09, 2021

Plaid Cymru riffs on the most racist by-election of all time


Nominations have only just closed on the Senedd elections but already a candidate has walked into controversy, tweeting a billboard which riffs on the racist slogan used by the Tory candidate in the 1964 Smethwick by-election.

Carrie Harper, the Plaid Cymru candidate for Wrexham, has managed to unite Welsh Labour, the Welsh Conservatives, Welsh Liberal Democrats and others with an appalling billboard, that manages to simultaneously reawaken an old racist trope, while playing on modern racist and political prejudices. 

At best it is negative and divisive politics, at worse it mirrors the language of the racist far right. This approach to campaigning has no place in our political discourse.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Home Office to continue sending asylum seekers to unsuitable camps

After a significant Covid outbreak in which 50% of the near 400 residents of the Napier barracks site in Kent fell sick, multiple outstanding legal challenges, the closure of a sister site in Pembrokeshire and months of revelations over the suitability of the camp, one would have hoped that the Home Office had learnt its lesson. Asylum seekers are human beings fleeing war, torture, starvation, the effects of climate change and persecution, and they should be treated accordingly.

However, the Guardian reports that a new intake of asylum seekers will be sent to the controversial Napier barracks from Friday, despite mounting evidence the camp is not suitable for accommodation.

The paper says it has seen correspondence confirming that Clearsprings Ready Homes, the private contractor that runs the site on behalf of the Home Office, intends to bring in new arrivals from Friday:

The decision comes after a significant Covid outbreak in which 50% of the near 400 residents fell sick, multiple outstanding legal challenges, the closure of a sister site in Pembrokeshire and months of revelations over the suitability of the camp.

Critics expressed anger and disappointment over the Home Office’s decision to persevere with the use of the former Ministry of Defence (MoD) site.

Stuart McDonald, SNP MP and member of the home affairs select committee, said: “The Home Office doesn’t need to use these dilapidated former barracks to accommodate people fleeing war and violence but are choosing to do so anyway – despite a damning inspection and the ongoing pandemic. That choice is a political one.

“The whole Home Office machine is hell-bent on ensuring life for people seeking refuge is as miserable as possible in the hope it will put off others from applying for refugee status. The use of these dilapidated barracks is shocking and shameful – but it is consistent with everything else the Home Office is doing.”

Earlier this year, the high court heard that the Home Office ignored Public Health England advice that the dormitory-style accommodation at Napier barracks, which holds up to 28 men in a single block, was not suitable during the pandemic.

And HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the independent chief inspector of Borders and Immigration published a damning report following inspections of Napier and the now-closed Penally camp, branding the sites “filthy” and “impoverished”.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “Local agencies in Kent and independent inspectors have all concluded that the barracks are unfit to house anybody. It’s shocking that the government is ignoring this and continuing to treat people who have experienced great trauma in their lives with a complete lack of compassion and humanity.”

Dr Jill O’Leary, lead doctor for the medical advisory advice at the Helen Bamber Foundation, who assessed former residents of Napier barracks, said: “We have consistently seen the threat these former military sites pose to the physical and mental health of residents. We have witnessed a devastating Covid-19 outbreak due to the dormitory-style accommodation, not to mention mental health crises, self-harm and suicide attempts as a result of the unsuitability of the environment.

“The Helen Bamber Foundation gave evidence to the home affairs select committee in February detailing the level of suffering that existed in these sites. The news that the Home Office are moving vulnerable asylum seekers back into Napier in the face of this evidence is deeply distressing to all involved.

“I anticipate further needless and preventable suffering of vulnerable people as a result of this decision.”

So the descent of the UK Government into a Hungarian-style popularist dictatorship continues.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Curbing the lobbyists

Marina Hyde is especially cutting in this morning's Guardian on David Cameron ghosting us over thge Greensill lobbying scandal. As she points out, the former Prime Minister is still receiving funding from the taxpayer:

David Cameron is still allowed to claim up to £115,000 a year from the public purse, literally to run this office. Surely that’s enough for someone in it to return a call? Seemingly not. Maybe the “office” is just a burner mobile ringing out in a shepherd’s hut. Either way, the firm of which Cameron was a salaried employee – and on whose behalf he lobbied the current government – has now imploded. Furthermore, its administrators have been unable to verify invoices underpinning loans to its top client, steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta, with several companies denying they have ever done business with Gupta. This is becoming quite the shitstorm. And while no one is suggesting the former prime minister is to blame for the shitstorm, he is certainly shitstorm-adjacent.

For the second time in five years, then, Britain is being ghosted by David Cameron. You’ll recall that having tanked his own Brexit referendum, he promptly retreated into the usual lucrative prime ministerial afterlife, while the rest of us had to endure years of the winners – the winners! – arguing about what they’d won. Even so, this latest silence is a giant piss-take. Come on, former prime minister – we thought we had something. We KNOW you’re still watching our Instagram stories. HELLO? Helloooooooooo? Earth to Call-Me-Dave! Call me, Dave.


As the Independent reports, there is once more a strong call for all lobbyists to be included on a government register, thus ending an exemption, for "in-house" employees, that applied to the former prime minister.

As one MP says: 'The former Conservative prime minister’s conduct, and the immense access Greensill was given, illustrates perfectly both the toothlessness of current rules and Tory ministers’ complete disregard for any self-driven integrity when lobbying.'

Given that many of those in government today might wish to keep their options open once they step down, I am not holding my breath for any change in the immediate or distant future.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Challenging 'Pork Barrel' politics

The good news this morning is that the government is facing a legal challenge over claims it funnelled cash to Tory areas with its "levelling-up" fund.

The Independent reports that The leafy market town constituencies of Rishi Sunak and Robert Jenrick are among areas to benefit from an unusual funding formula that critics accused of amounting to "pork parallel politics":

Now legal campaigners from the the Good Law Project are will take the government to court contending that the design of the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund is unlawful.

They cite an investigation by the National Audit Office, which found that the government's list of targets for the cash had been published without supporting information to explain why they had been chosen.

he House of Commons' cross party Public Accounts Committee had also said the lack of transparency had left to concerns of "political bias" in the allocation of funds.

Forty out of the first 45 schemes to be approved in March had at least one Conservative MP.

In a letter of claim sent last week, the campaigners argue that the project is unlawful on four counts.

They say ministers appear to have breached their duty under the equality act to carry out an equalities impact assessment, breached their common law duty of transparency, acted irrationally because of flaws in their methodology, and that “decisions were tainted by irrelevant considerations/improper purpose, namely the electoral advantage (or potential electoral advantage) of the Conservative party”.

Jolyon Maugham, the barrister who founded the campaign group, said: "If you think that it's coincidence that Tory marginals are huge beneficiaries I have a fine bridge to sell you. To ensure the Tories don't use public money for party purposes, the Good Law Project is suing."

The campaigners cite Chris Hanretty, Professor of Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, who looked at the funding formula and evidence presented by the National Audit Office and government.

"On the basis of the data collated by the ministry and published by the NAO, there is robust evidence that ministers chose towns so as to benefit the Conservatives in marginal Westminster seats," he wrote.

"Choosing towns to benefit a particular party goes against the seven principles of public life (the ‘Nolan principles’), and in particular the obligation to 'take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias'."

Is this another example of the Nolan principles of public life being subverted for party political ends? But let us be clear allegations like these do not just relate to the Tories.

In Neath Port Talbot the then-Labour Leader stepped aside when a recording was released, allegedly of him, stating public money and resources have been diverted to wards to assist candidates from his party. An investigation is now underway to uncover the facts.

Monday, April 05, 2021

A new era of political sleaze?

Over at the Guardian, Zoe Williams has a few thoughts on the sleaze that is engulfing Boris Johnson's Tory Government and whether he is in breach of the Nolan principles on public life:

Michael Nolan didn’t have a lot to say about chastity or generosity or modesty or humility, I’m guessing because he assumed that the public would provide that firewall themselves. If a person was visibly greedy or wrathful or gluttonous, if they couldn’t handle government money without funnelling it through their friends, or have juniors at work without swearing at them, or had such poor impulse control that they would invite their girlfriend to their marital home for a cheesy pasta dinner, only to have run out of cheese, then they would never make it in public life in the first place. Standards for officials were a totally second-order affair, designed for the intricate moral dilemmas of duty versus ambition, openness versus discretion. They assumed a baseline of normal human decency. Asking whether Boris Johnson could have breached Nolan’s principles is like asking whether two pigeons trying to shag mid-air have violated public decency legislation. Maybe, technically. But they’re just pigeons, doing what pigeons do.

The sleaze-politician never defends him or herself on the facts; their defence is always: “This is who I am, because this is who we all are, because this is what politics is, and the sooner you price it in, the less dispirited you will feel.” That’s why successful critique can only really come from within the political establishment. The argument isn’t really about right and wrong, which is pretty simple. The argument is: “Do politicians really need principles – God’s, Nolan’s or anyone else’s?” It takes another politician to say: “Yes, they really do.”

It is a cynical take on events, but one that seems perfectly justified in the light of the actions of this government.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Even illiberal former Home Secretaries oppose this bill

Pandemic aside, those who are protesting about the government's bill to restrict the right to protest by giving more powers to the police are, in my opinion, on the right side of history. The list of those speaking out against the bill is growing, and even includes some surprising voices.

Amongst those voices are former Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who writes in yesterday's Guardian that this anti-protest bill risks making the UK like Putin's Russia.

Blunkett writes that the government’s plans to use the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill to give police in England and Wales sweeping powers to put down protests look set to strain community relationships to breaking point. He adds it will leave a bad taste in the mouths of British people who value tolerance, democracy and open debate:

By giving police forces sweeping discretion about how they deal with protesters, this law would drive a wedge between them and the public. Among other things, the bill would allow police officers to impose any conditions they feel necessary on certain types of protest, and expand their power to shut down demonstrations they feel would be unacceptably noisy or a nuisance. Try defining the term “nuisance”, because parliament certainly won’t, and you see the problem.

Forcing the police, who are citizens in uniform, to make individual, highly charged decisions makes it inevitable that some will be inconsistent, and that means we’ll see individuals singled out for blame. The pressure on Cressida Dick and the Metropolitan police after the vigil for Sarah Everard gives us an inkling of the controversies that could blaze across the country if these sweeping powers are pushed on to the police. That risks making the force the scapegoat for every unpopular decision – a dangerous spot to be in for a service set up to police by consent.

Protest might be inconvenient for politicians, but it acts as a pressure valve, allowing citizens to express their views and vent frustrations that could otherwise boil over. Irish politicians such as John Finucane MP have drawn on their experience of the Troubles to warn that stifling protest won’t work and risks undermining the belief that each of us has a stake in society. If we suppress protest, we could see more anger towards institutions including the police, the judiciary and parliament. We would lose the civil engagement and sense of celebration that we see at events such as women’s marches or Pride.

It’s easy to stereotype protesters as leftwing. But this bill would mean alienating others across the centre and right wing of the electorate whom the government won’t want – or can’t afford – to lose: taxi drivers angry about Uber, say, or ardent Brexit supporters. The French gilets jaunes movement proved the appeal of a big-tent protest movement that mobilised citizens from the left, centre and right. However, the long burn turned out to be reactionary rather than revolutionary. The pendulum can swing either way.

Tolerating dissent and protest is a British value, and it’s central to our democracy. It’s ironic that this bill would mean far harsher treatment for protesters in Parliament Square, where statues commemorate Mandela and Gandhi, leaders of historic disruptive, noisy and annoying protest movements now taught in British schools.

He concludes: 'if this bill passes into law unamended, we’re heading for more ugly conflicts between the public and the police – and a police force that’s weaker for it.'

Although I welcome this intervention, I am not blind to the irony. Blunkett was one of the most illiberal Home Secretaries in my lifetime. If he thinks this bill goes too far then we really are in danger of slipping into dictatorship.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Brushing history under the carpet

Considering that the Tory government's kneekerk response to black lives matter was that they were trying to rewrite history, it is ironic that the report they commissioned in response to that movement has received a similar criticism.

In today's Guardian, the historian and broadcaster, David Olusoga, has accused the authors of giving the impression they would prefer “history to be swept under the carpet”:

Olusoga said that, as a historian, for him the most disturbing passages in the report were those in which the authors “stumble, ill-prepared and overconfident, into the arena of history”.

“Shockingly, the authors – perhaps unwittingly – deploy a version of an argument that was used by the slave owners themselves in defence of slavery 200 years ago: the idea that by becoming culturally British, black people were somehow beneficiaries of the system,” Olusoga wrote in a Guardian article.

“Determined to privilege comforting national myths over hard historical truths, they give the impression of being people who would prefer this history to be brushed back under the carpet,” he added, describing the report as Britain’s version of the “1776 report” commissioned by the Trump administration, which urged the US to return to an era of “patriotic education”.

Hakim Adi, professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester, told the Guardian that the report’s foreword failed to make clear that the subjugation of millions of African people was a crime against humanity.

“It is forgetting the hundreds of years of the crimes against the African people, the deaths of millions of African men, women and children,” said Adi. “We live in a country where [many] have denied this as a reality, they have refused to make any reparation, and for this report to put it in a paragraph in that manner – the word insulting does not do it justice.”

The British theologian Robert Beckford said it was consistent with the radical and “historical amnesia and vicious historical revisionism” of Caribbean and African history by the far right. Beckford, professor of Black theology at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, said the report had reduced slavery’s racial terror and Britain’s racial capitalism to a simple exchange of cultural ideas.

The paper adds that the report has drawn further criticism from hundreds of UK academics who came together to sign an open letter criticising its “selective and distorted use of academic research”:

While the report claims education was “the single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience”, the letter’s signatories said it had “completely overlooked the substantial base of evidence in educational research that has shown how structural, institutional and direct racism works in and through schools, universities and other sites of education”.

Those involved had a “limited knowledge of education research”, the letter writers said, adding that research was cited so as “to present simplistic understandings of education and divisive views of ethnic minority groups”.

“The report misrepresents, omits and elides longstanding and nuanced academic debate and evidence about the complex relationship between racism and educational practices, cultures, policies, and systems,” they added.

The report's authors feel that they have been misunderstood, and yet they stand by what is written in black and white in the document. Isn't it time the government disowned it?

Friday, April 02, 2021

Action needed to save the bees

Anybody who has read Maja Lunde's book 'The History of Bees' will understand the key role they play within the world's ecology system and the dramatic and devastating impact of them dying out will have on our environment and the survival of the human race. If you have not read it, then please do.

It was disturbing to read in the Guardian therefore, that new research has shown the toxic impact of pesticides on bees and other pollinators has doubled in a decade despite a fall in the amount of pesticide used.

The paper says modern pesticides have much lower toxicity to people, wild mammals and birds and are applied in lower amounts, but they are even more toxic to invertebrates. The study shows the higher toxicity outweighs the lower volumes, leading to a more deadly overall impact on pollinators and waterborne insects such as dragonflies and mayflies.

The research also shows that the toxic impact of pesticides used on genetically modified crops remains the same as conventional crops, despite claims that GM crops would reduce the need for pesticides.

Nearly sixty years after Rachel Carson's book 'Silent Spring' documented the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides, we are still posing a threat to our own existence by the use of these toxic chemicals.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Uk Government report tries to put a positive cultural spin 'on the slave trade'

Yesterday I referenced the report from No 10’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which rather optimistically concluded that the UK should be seen as an international exemplar of racial equality, playing down the impact of structural factors in ethnic disparities. 

In fact the report has attracted a huge amount of criticism and scepticism with many people of colour arguing that it does not reflect their experience of living in the UK.

There is a suspicion that the conclusions of the report are seeking to promote a government agenda, but that is not the most shocking part of it. That comes in the chair's forward. He writes::

The ‘Making of Modern Britain’ teaching resource is our response to negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum. Neither the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement will help to broaden young minds. We have argued against bringing down statues, instead, we want all children to reclaim their British heritage. We want to create a teaching resource that looks at the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period. We want to see how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain. One great example would be a dictionary or lexicon of well known British words which are Indian in origin. There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.

Any careful reading of that passage, especially the last sentence could well conclude that it is an attempt to put a positive spin on slavery. Perhaps some clarification is needed.

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