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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Has Ed Davey overreached as the party's federal leader?

Back in 2000, when the then Welsh Liberal Democrats group of Assembly Members were considering entering into a coalition government with Labour, we were, at one point, gathered into Mike German's office for a telephone conference with the federal leader of the party, Charles Kennedy.

I am still unsure what those who arranged this meeting hoped to achieve. Maybe, it was considered that Charles could sway the waverers into taking the plunge. If that was the case then the organisers would have been sorely disappointed, for Charles had come to listen, not to exhort. 

He understood that the decision had to be taken in Wales, and that it was not his place to interfere. He may have been the federal leader. but that did not give him a mandate to tell the Welsh Party how to conduct its affairs.

Things have gone a bit downhill since then, with the Federal Party in 2019 dictating to Wales which seats they could and could not contest in the 2019 General Election, effectively overriding local party autonomy and driving some key activists out of the party. And then there is this intereview with the current federal leader, Ed Davey.

In this piece, Ed Davey is quoted as saying that the party's only Member of the Senedd (MS) is right not to be involved in deal talks with the Welsh government. Jane Dodds is sitting on the Senedd's opposition benches, which Ed believes, allows her to have a "distinctive message":

Asked if he would prefer the Welsh Liberal Democrat leader to be in the co-operation talks instead of Plaid, he said: "No."

Speaking ahead of his party's autumn conference, he told BBC Politics Wales: "Jane was right to say that she will be in opposition to the Labour Senedd government.

"I think that's right because we need to show that we've got a distinctive message."

He added: "There was no proposal that we would go into government and there's no option for her to do what Kirsty was able to do.

"I totally support Jane Dodds to say she wants to be an independent opposition, and get that Liberal Democrat voice for our priorities, whether it's for parents, carers or small businesses, or the environment".

Now, I don't know if Ed was authorised to say any of that, or if he was making it up on the hoof. It is certainly the case that none of the options he has dismissed have been discussed by the Welsh Party as a whole. More importantly, it isn't really his place to say one way or the other, as not only is he not the Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, but he cannot know what is going on behind the scenes.

The Labour Government may be in talks with Plaid Cymru, but they are not going to want to put all their eggs in one basket, and in doing so. weaken their negotiating position. They will want to talk to Jane Dodds about their budget too, and she will have things she wants to achieve as an MS, that she can only get done through negotiation.

Has Ed Davey overreached by making those discussion more difficult? Will he stand back, as Charles Kennedy did and let the Welsh Party get on with whatever they want to do? He is going to look really silly if Jane Dodds does broker a budget deal with the Labour Government.

This basic failure to understand the devolution settlement and the federal nature of the party was one of the main reasons why I could not vote for Ed Davey as leader. So far my decision appears to be justified.

Friday, September 17, 2021

A climate change denier in the cabinet?

Boris Johnson has certainly surprised some commentators with the ruthlessness he employed in reshuffling his cabinet, however, his failure to scrutinise the views of some of his new senior ministers is par for the course, unless that is he doesnt really care.

As the Independent reports, the new Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, has a whole raft of unpopular opinions to her name. She is a long-time critic of the BBC, has argued that “left wing snowflakes are killing comedy” and “dumbing down panto”, and isa strong opponent of gay marriage. So far, so Tory.

More controversial however, must be the appointment of Anne-Marie Trevelyan as International Trade Secretary. As the Independent also reports, she has been accused of climate emergency denial after a series of tweets came to light in which she insisted the world was not getting hotter and dismissed global warming campaigners as “fanatics”:

In the messages, sent between 2010 and 2012, Anne-Marie Trevelyan approvingly quoted the work of groups which have rejected the mainstream scientific consensus that human activity is driving climate change.

And she stated that one such group had provided “clear evidence that the ice caps aren’t melting after all, to counter those gloom-mongers and global warming fanatics”.

Her elevation to the cabinet somes just weeks ahead of the COP26 UN conference being chaired by Boris Johnson in Glasgow, at which the prime minister is hoping to persuade countries from around the world to sign up to ambitious carbon-cutting targets. Let's hope that the other delegates have not been studying Trevalyan's history:

Her controversial comments on climate change date back to before she entered parliament in 2015, but after she had fought the previous general election as a Tory candidate

In one tweet, backing a campaign against wind farms in 2012, she said: “We aren’t getting hotter, global warming isn’t actually happening.”

And in another message she praised as “intelligent” an article about the “global warming myth” by the Climate Realists group, who argue that temperature rises cannot be blamed on manmade carbon emissions.

In 2011, she gave her support to outspoken climate emergency denier Lord Lawson for “hitting back” at then energy secretary Chris Huhne’s “ideological obsession with manmade climate change”.

Hardly the best choice for such a sensitive role.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Another dysfunctional Johnson relationship

The Independent reports on the views of Peter Ricketts, a former head of the Foreign Office, who believes that Boris Johnson’s refusal to rebuild the UK’s “dysfunctional relationship” with the EU is damaging foreign and security policy.

Ricketts says the prime minister’s “tactic” of trying to build closer links with national capitals instead “will not work” and must be rethought, with the bitter spats between London and Brussels since Brexit, making the task hugely difficult, and leaving trust is at a very low ebb:

The warning comes after the UK rebuffed a European Union push to negotiate a defence and security treaty alongside the Christmas Eve trade deal, believing it to be unnecessary.

In the months since, the ‘Partnership Council’ intended to pursue closer cooperation between the two sides has barely met – after the hardline David Frost was put in charge of EU policy.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, reportedly refused to hold a cross-Channel summit with the UK, because he believed that little could be achieved.

The warning from Lord Ricketts, also a former national security adviser, will come at a meeting of a Commons trade and business commission, which will hear from other experts about the challenges now facing British diplomacy.

The peer said, ahead of the session: “The tactic of trying to work with individual EU countries while maintaining a dysfunctional relationship with the EU will not work.

“We urgently need to rebuild cooperation starting with areas like foreign and security policy where our interests are obviously close.

“But that will take trust and trust cannot be built by either side engaging in megaphone diplomacy or failing to meet commitments already made. Unfortunately, trust is now at a very low ebb.”

Terry Reintke, the vice chair of the Greens-EFA Group in the European Parliament, said the chaos of Brexit “has certainly damaged this reputation and trust in the UK internationally”.

And Georgina Wright, head of the Europe Programme at the think-tank Institut Montaigne, said the UK was faced with having to “work doubly hard” to get countries to “pay attention to it”.

Theresa May had stressed the importance of a comprehensive foreign and security policy deal with the EU, but Mr Johnson dropped the policy.

His focus has been on striking new trade deals – after foreign, security and defence policy barely featured in the 2016 referendum campaign.

Mr Johnson believed bilateral working with the key EU member states would allow it to exert influence over the others and over the Brussels institutions.

Ministers have pointed to the UK’s muscle as a leading military power, with nuclear missiles, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and access to the Five Eyes spy network with the United States.

But confidence has been dented by the public split with Washington over the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan – which has revived calls for closer cooperation with the EU.

Brexit is really going well, isn't it?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Unacceptable and savage slaughter must be outlawed

At a time when we are in the middle of a climate and ecological crisis the last thing that anybody wants to read about is the senseless slaughter of 1,500 dolphins in a cruel and barbaric hunt just 224 miles off the UK's coast.

But, as the Times reports, that is what has happened as a “superpod” of 1,428 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were killed at Skalabotnur in the North Atlantic archipelago. According to Sea Shepherd people in speed boats and on jetskis drove the superpod of dolphins for many hours over a distance of 45 km into shallow water where they were all killed:

Rob Read, chief operations officer at Sea Shepherd, said: “This is, we believe, the largest ever single hunt of dolphins or pilot whales in Faroese history — the next largest being 1,200 pilot whales back in 1940 — and is possibly the largest single hunt of cetaceans ever recorded worldwide

“For such a hunt to take place in 2021 in a very wealthy island community just 230 miles from the UK, with no need or use for such a vast quantity of undoubtedly contaminated meat, is outrageous.

“This happened also towards the end of this summer when the Faroese have already killed 615 long-finned pilot whales and their freezers are already full.

“It is no surprise therefore that this latest unprecedented hunt is being criticised in the Faroese media and even by many outspoken pro-whalers and politicians in the Faroe Islands.”

He said the death toll in Skalabotnur exceeded the total killed in any recent year by Japanese fishermen during their six-month dolphin and whale-killing season.

Sea Shepherd believe many of the participants in the slaughter did not have the licence required in the Faroes to conduct the killing. The licence involves specific training in how to kill pilot whales and dolphins quickly:

“Footage shows many of the dolphins were still alive and moving even after being thrown onshore with the rest of their dead pod,” the charity said.

It added that photos showed many of the dolphins had been run over by motorboats, suffering wounds from their propellers which would have resulted in a slow and painful death.

The hunting of whales and dolphins is an annual ritual in the Faroes that dates back a thousand years. An average of 1,500 dolphins are killed annually during their hunting season. Supporters argue that it reduces the amount of food that the islanders must import.

In July last year, the sea near the village of Hvalba in the Faroes turned red when 252 pilot whales and 35 white-sided dolphins were killed.


As the wildlife broadcaster, Chris Packham says, this is a grotesque act of unforgivable savagery wrought upon a highly intelligent, sentient, social animals. It is the twenty-first century, surely there should be an international agreement to outlaw this barbarism.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Another Boris Johnson white elephant scrapped

At last, a government cut I agree with. The Guardian reports that a controversial plan to build a tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland has been ditched before ground was broken.

They say the proposed link, described as the “world’s most stupid tunnel” by Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, had a price tag of about £15bn and the backing of the prime minister. But an unnamed government official with knowledge of Treasury spending negotiations has told the Financial Times the plans are “dead, at least for now”:

Johnson was reportedly keen to link Northern Ireland to Great Britain as part of a broader vision to connect the constituent parts of the UK. But others have questioned whether the prime minister was genuine or seeking a distraction, noting that talk of bridging the Irish Sea follows similarly grandiose and ultimately undeliverable schemes he dreamed up while mayor of London.

Johnson first suggested connecting Stranraer in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland by bridge three years ago, an idea that was widely derided by engineers. Concerns were raised about the practicality of constructing a bridge across the stormy stretch of water, which is more than 1,000ft deep in places, and experts said it would require dozens of support towers at heights “never achieved anywhere in the world”.

The tunnel proposal was being considered by a transport connectivity review led by the Network Rail chair, Sir Peter Hendy; two engineering professors were commissioned to lead a feasibility study into a bridge or tunnel.

The High-Speed Rail Group (HSRG), composed of rail industry leaders, proposed tunnelling under the Irish Sea between Stranraer and Larne in its submission to the Hendy review. According to the HSRG, the tunnel would bind Northern Ireland closer to Great Britain and would “address problems in economic status of Northern Ireland post-Brexit”.

A new rail connection between Carlisle and Stranraer would be needed and the width of railway track in Ireland may need to be altered, the proposal said.

One would like to think that, unlike Johnson's Thames bridge idea, no public money was wasted on this nonsense but clearly there has been a feasibility study so that is unlikely. At least the idea was out out of its misery before serious money could be spent on it.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Are food shortages permanent?

Anybody doing the weekly shop has noticed that certain items are no longer available on supermarket shelves, and according to some experts that trend is to continue.

The Independent reports that he head of the Food and Drink Federation, Ian Wright, has said staff shortages – triggered by a combination of Covid and Brexit – have killed off the “just-in-time” delivery model. He claims food shortages in supermarkets and restaurants are “permanent” and shoppers will never again enjoy a full choice of items:

But Downing Street rejected the claim of a broken system and, in a potential hostage to fortune, predicted the shortages will be over by the festive season.

Pressed on whether the shortages will ease to allow people to enjoy a “normal Christmas”, Boris Johnson’s spokesman told The Independent: “I believe so, yes.”

The clash came as the government rebuffs calls to loosen post-Brexit immigration rules – to attract more HGV drivers, for example – insisting businesses must stop relying on EU workers.

But the hit to trade from leaving the EU and the pandemic was laid bare by new figures revealing trade with the bloc plunged in July, with exports £1.7bn lower than in July 2018 and imports down £3bn.

Worryingly, the UK is on course to fall out of Germany’s top 10 trading partners for the first time in 70 years, data issued by the German government revealed.

“The UK’s loss of importance in foreign trade is the logical consequence of Brexit. These are probably lasting effects,” said Gabriel Felbermayr, the president of the Institute for the World Economy.

In the UK, McDonald’s, Greggs, the Co-op and Ikea are just some of the big retailers that have struggled to supply products to their customers in recent weeks.

The CBI business group has warned the labour shortages behind the gaps on shelves and restaurant menus could last up to two years, without urgent government action.

The Food and Drink Federation stepped up that pressure when Mr Wright told a think tank event: “It’s going to get worse, and it’s not going to get better after getting worse any time soon.”

He then added: “The result of the labour shortages is that the just-in-time system that has sustained supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants – so the food has arrived on shelf or in the kitchen, just when you need it – is no longer working.”

The Prime Minister has put his neck on the line by predicting this will only be a temporary glitch, we will see if he is proved right or not. Only three and a half months to Christmas.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Breaking the rules

Boris Johnson is a serial rule-breaker, in fact he has built a career on his willigness to buck the trend when it is in his own interests. It is lttle surprise therefore to find that he tolerates similar traits in other members of his government.

Amongst those who like to do things their own way is Priti Patel, who was notoriously forced to step down as international development secretary in 2017 after it emerged she failed to be candid with Theresa May about 14 unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, businesspeople and a senior lobbyist.

Whether Johnson takes the same approach as his predecessor in dealing with his Home Secretary's latest alleged indiscretion is another matter.

The Guardian reports that Priti Patel has been accused of being “reckless” and a “serial offender” in breaching the ministerial code after allegations she brokered a meeting between a billionaire Tory donor and British Airways:

The Sunday Mirror reported that Priti Patel arranged a meeting on 11 August at Heathrow airport’s Hilton Garden Inn, which is part of a chain owned by Tory donor Surinder Arora.

Arora, the founder and chairman of the Arora Group, was at the meeting along with his son Sanjay, the Arora strategy director; Arora chief financial officer, Carlton Brown; the chief executive of Dubai Airports, Paul Griffiths; and BA corporate affairs director, Lisa Tremble.

BA chief executive Sean Doyle was reportedly invited but could not attend.

But the Sunday Mirror reported there was no official from the Home Office present, as rules would dictate there should be if government business was discussed. The ministerial code states: “A private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to government business.

“If a minister meets an external organisation or individual and finds themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a social occasion or on holiday – any significant content should be passed back to the department as soon as possible after the event.”

A spokesperson for the home secretary said: “Details of all the home secretary’s relevant external meetings will be published in the usual way in accordance with the ministerial code.”

It is understood that Patel considered it a private meeting and that the lunch was declared to her private office.

There will no doubt be eyebrows raised at this latest incident given past behaviour, however whether it amounts to a breach of the code and whether Johnson can afford to lose his Home Secretary at this time, has yet to be seen.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

UK trade with EU falls sharply

The Guardian reports on official data that shows Britain’s trade with the EU falling sharply in July, with Brexit and the global pandemic driving exports £1.7bn lower than in July 2018 and imports falling by £3bn:

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the fall was largely driven by declines in medicinal and pharmaceutical products, which have been particularly hit by the need for separate regulatory approval post Brexit.

Experts said the latest ONS figures could be a sign that the UK is losing its overall competitiveness.

Compared with 2018, which the ONS describes as the most recent “stable” period in UK trade, the change in trading levels is stark.

In July, total exports of goods, excluding precious metals, fell by £300m because of a £900m (6.5%) fall in exports to the EU, the ONS said.

At the same time, exports to non-EU countries increased by £700m, not enough to compensate for the overall fall.

Although this may not have been on the side of the Boris Bus, experts had predicted these falls as a consequence of Brexit. It is just a shame that Ministers had stopped listening to experts by that point.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Universal credit cut will hit sickest areas the hardest

The Guardian reports on research by the Health Foundation, which has found that scrapping the £1,000-a-year boost to universal credit next month will trigger mental illness and poorer health for thousands of people, and hit the sickest areas of the UK hardest.

They also reveal that the UK Government has carried out no formal impact assessment of the dropping of the £20-a-week UC increase because it represents a return to “business as usual”:

The Health Foundation charity said areas such as Blackpool, Hartlepool, Wolverhampton, Peterborough and parts of east London – already suffering some of the worst health outcomes – would be most affected by the income cut.

It said the removal of such a vital chunk of income would contribute to rising mental ill health at a time when many families are already dealing with the stress of debts, and face the prospect of soaring energy and food prices.

More than 50 Conservative MPs, six former work and pensions secretaries and an army of charities and anti-poverty campaigners have urged Downing Street to think again about the policy, which will cost about 6 million hard-pressed families £1,502 a year. Marcus Rashford, the footballer and anti-poverty campaigner, has also called for the cut to be scrapped.

...

The foundation said areas with a high proportion of UC recipients were already likely to have significantly worse health. In Blackpool for example, where average healthy life expectancy for men and women is just 55.2 years, the average UC cut per head is £283.

This contrasts with the home counties authority of Wokingham in Berkshire, where average healthy life expectancy for men and women is 71.2 years, and the average loss per head as a result of the UC cut would be £76.

Jo Bibby, director of health at the Health Foundation, said: “A cut to universal credit would be a step backwards and an indication that the government has not learned from mistakes of the recovery from the financial crisis. The pandemic is not yet over and if we are to avoid long-term scars, it is vital that we maintain this support on which so many families rely.”

The link between mental ill-health and UC has been established in a number of academic studies. A Liverpool University study published in the Lancet in 2020 found that “stressors” such as the built-in five-week wait for a first payment led to an increase in “psychological stress”.

A 2018 study by researchers at Newcastle and Teesside universities found that the stress of coping with the new benefits system had so profoundly affected claimants’ mental health that some considered suicide, leading experts to suggest the benefit be regarded as a serious threat to public health.

More than 700,000 people will be pushed into poverty by the removal of the uplift, research by Fabian Society thinktank found earlier this year. Worst hit would be working families, many with children, which would account for nearly two-thirds of those falling below the breadline.

Surely it is time for a rethink on this cut?

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Why fortress Britain is struggling to hold water

The Home Secretary's latest wheeze to turn around small boats carrying migrants in the channel and send them back to France is yet another example of this inward-looking, xenophobic, reactionary government's approach to immigration. It is a disgrace and would add to the sullying of the UK's name in the international community, not that we have much hope of recovering any goodwill at the moment. However, as the Guardian reports, the plan may not be as water tight as Priti Patel hopes.

They quote Lucy Moreton, a professional officer at the Immigration Services Union (ISU), who says she would be surprised if the policy was used “even once”:

The proposals, which would require maritime law to be rewritten, have already been rejected by the French government.

Moreton told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In practical terms, if this happens even once, I would be surprised.

“There are understandably a lot of constraints around it and you cannot do this with a vessel that is in any way vulnerable and more importantly you need the consent of the French to do it.

“Because when you turn the vessel back toward France, when it is across the median line it has to be intercepted and rescued by the French and it appears the French will simply not engage with this, in which case it’s – if you excuse the pun – dead in the water.”

Tim Loughton, a Conservative MP and member of the home affairs select committee, also poured cold water on the prospects of the tactic being used in practice, although supported the underlying principle.

He said: “It sounds good. But I’m afraid in practice it’s just not going to happen. These are flimsy boats coming over. Even those that are tougher are completely weighed down.

“Any boat coming up alongside at speed would capsize most of these boats anyway and then we’re looking at people getting into trouble in the water and drowning … and then we’ll get blamed for that. It sounds good pushing them back but it’s not going to work in practice.”

How much longer can this discredited and illiberal politician be allowed to continue in the role of Home Secretary?

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Now Brexit is destroying our environment

As if empty supermarket shelves, tens of thousands of unfilled jobs in key industries and a massive increase in red tape for businesses was not bad enough, we are now faced with one of the other consequences of Brexit being more polluted water courses.

The Independent reports that the government has given polluters the green light to dump risky sewage that has not been properly cleaned into rivers and the sea because Brexit and Covid have disrupted normal water treatment.

They add that in recent weeks some businesses have found it more difficult to get hold of water treatment chemicals because of supply chain disruption at ports blamed primarily on Britain's departure from the EU:

The Environment Agency this week said companies struggling to get hold of the required chemicals would be allowed to "discharge effluent without meeting the conditions" of their permits, which normally require water to be treated by a multi-step process.

Rolling shortages have hit different parts of the UK economy since the government took the country out of EU's customs union and single market – imposing new border bureaucracy on importers and exporters.

The ending of free movement and the creation of new red tape on doing business with Britain's largest trading partner has also exacerbated a shortage of lorry drivers, with the logistical nightmare compounded by coronavirus.

Water treatment is the latest sector to be hit, following concerns last week about a blood tube shortage hitting the NHS and reports of intermittent shortages in supermarkets across the country.

In a statement released on Monday, the Environment Agency said: "Normally, you need a permit under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 to discharge treated effluent from a waste water treatment works (WwTW) to surface water or groundwater. Permits contain conditions that control the quality of the effluent you can discharge.

"You may not be able to comply with your permit if you cannot get the chemicals you use to treat the effluent you discharge because of the UK’s new relationship with the EU, coronavirus (COVID-19), [or] other unavoidable supply chain failures, for example the failure of a treatment chemical supplier.

"If you follow the conditions in this regulatory position statement (RPS) you can discharge effluent without meeting the conditions in your permit. You must get written agreement from your Environment Agency water company account manager before you use this RPS."

Companies should "resume use of chemicals to treat effluent as soon as is practicable", the agency said. The regulatory relaxation will last until at least the end of the year, with an extension possible.

This is an entirely unacceptable response to this problem. It is bad enough that water companies discharged raw sewage in UK rivers no fewer than 400,000 times last year, without adding to is, and it being sanctioned by the body meant to be regulating water quality.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Lies coming home to roost

Over at the Guardian, Simon Jenkins has got Boris Johnson bang to rights on the lies that have led to the shambles now enveloping British trade with Europe. He quite rightly says that the Prime Minister is wrong that our current predicament was an unavoidable price worth paying to leave the EU:

In order to further his chances of becoming Tory leader Boris Johnson made two commitments. One was to resign from the EU, the other was to depart Europe’s customs union and single market, aspects of which embrace other non-EU states such as Norway. The second decision was an almost casual gesture to make him look macho to the party’s hardline Brexiters. It was not put to referendum and was beyond stupid.

No news item today is free of the consequences. Earlier this year, the effects of leaving the single market could be seen in plummeting trade with the continent, even accounting for the pandemic. Additional red tape is awesome. HMRC estimates traders will be handling 215m more import/export documents a year, at an estimated bureaucratic cost of £7.5bn a year. Tariffs may not apply but rules of origin and health standards do. Every truck, every cargo requires inspection.

As for migration, the overall shortage of seasonal farm labour, according to BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today, is 20% and often more. Fruit will rot in fields, pigs cannot get to abattoirs and Christmas turkeys will be a “nightmare”. Meanwhile, care homes in England are short of 170,000 staff, and delivery firms short of 100,000 drivers. Hotels have abandoned rooms and restaurant tables. Creative industries – worth £110bn to the UK economy – were forgotten by the Brexit negotiators and are now virtually isolated from Europe.

This is not Brexit. Britain could have left Brussels and freed itself from a mass of rules and regulations. It is the result of leaving the single market, of Johnson’s xenophobic belief that European trade standards were somehow “not British”. He was wildly in favour of EU workers when mayor of London but no longer as prime minister.

I am sure some of the current disruption will settle down but the idea that trade with Britain’s biggest partner by far, the EU, will ever recover outside some form of economic union is absurd. So is the theory that any losses from the present chaos will be met by gains elsewhere. It seems bizarre to have to explain to a Tory that prosperity lies in open markets not closed ones.

He concludes that Brexit need never have so devastated the British economy. The damage has come from the decision to leave the single market. If we are to recover, then we need to rejoin as fast as possible, by imitating the protocol it has agreed for Ireland. That may well be ironic but it solves several problems in one fell swoop.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Government all at sea over Irish protocol

There is no better way to generate mistrust and suspicion in the international commmunity than to negotiate and sign an agreement and then renege on it, and Boris Johnson's government has done that in spades, with even the chief negotiator joining in to renounce the protocol he led on.

As the Guardian reports, David Frost, who is now a minister, has renewed his demands for fundamental changes on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol, warning the row could have a long-term chilling effect on wider EU-UK relations unless it was resolved.

The row over the protocol, known in some quarters as “sausage wars”, blew up within days of Brexit being enforced in January, with barriers imposed for the first time for trade of food, plants and medicines from Great Britain.

Frost has called on the EU to engage seriously with proposals for radical changes to the protocol published in a UK government command paper in July, arguing “the proposals do not remove it [the Northern Ireland protocol]” and actually “retain controls in the Irish Sea for certain purposes”:

He said society would not forgive either side if they did not make the “small muscle movements” needed to make the protocol work.

“When one looks at the price [of failure or success], and sets it against other challenges that we face in Covid recovery, and Afghanistan, one wonders what future generations would say” if the impasse is not broken.

“We have no interest at all in having a fractious and difficult relationship with the EU,” he said.

Frost was speaking hours after the Irish prime minister said at the same conference that unilateral moves by the UK would always be doomed to failure, arguing that history showed partnerships were the only route to success.

Talks over implementation of the protocol have continued between officials in London and Brussels over the summer but senior sources say engagement is “slow” and it is unlikely an agreement will be reached by 30 September, indicating talks will extend into the winter months.

Frost said the protocol had to be modified to recognise “two sovereign and autonomous entities, not a relationship of subordination or one where one party’s rules have to be applied mechanically by the other”.

The Northern Ireland Protocol contains over 31 pages of annexes listing every EU law that applies in Northern Ireland, including customs and animal health checks. It was negotiated by David Frost, signed willingly by the UK Government and made the centrepiece of the Tory re-election campaign in December 2019. Did anybody actually read it? It is little wonder the UK is losing credibility internationally.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

The Tory power grab

Controversy about the Tories Elections Bill continues to grow with the Observer reporting on an open letter from charities including Save the Children, independent campaign groups such as Greenpeace, and the trades union movement accusing the government of trying to rig future elections by stifling opposition and deterring participation.

The bill, which will confer new powers on Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove over the hitherto independent Electoral Commission, which oversees elections and regulates political finance:

The government says the bill has been drawn up to ensure “that UK elections remain secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent”. But its many critics says it amounts to a “power grab”, while doing nothing to stop big money donations.

One of the most controversial measures in the bill is that voters must show photo IDs before getting a ballot paper in a polling station at parliamentary and local elections in England – a move ministers say will improve the integrity of elections and prevent votes from being stolen. It proposes a broad range of photo IDs, such as passports or driving licences, will be allowed, as well as a free voter card available to those without any other form of ID.

Opponents insist, however, that cases of stealing another’s vote are rare and point out that huge numbers people who are less well off and less inclined to back the Conservatives do not have photo ID and will be put off, or prevented from, voting. The Electoral Reform Society, which opposes the voter ID move, has pointed out that “in the UK and US, the richer you are the more likely you are to have ID. Many citizens who can’t afford to go on foreign holidays don’t have passports, and those that can’t drive don’t have driving licences.”

In their joint letter, co-ordinated and backed by the civil society organisation Best for Britain, they say the bill will not only allow Gove to set the EC’s strategic priorities but will also allow him to unilaterally define campaigning and to ban campaigners and donors. It will also increase administrative burdens and potential risk for smaller organisations including charities, ahead of elections.

The letter, also signed by the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, states: “The bill bestows unprecedented and unchecked power to government over elections. At a stroke, the minister could ban whole sections of civil society, including unions and charities, from engaging in elections either by campaigning or donating.”

It adds: “Giving control of the Electoral Commission to ministers opens it to abuse by the government, turning it into a tool which they could use disproportionately against opposition campaigners while ensuring their own side receives less scrutiny.

“It could also be used to deter organised opposition before an election is even announced, with ministers able to instruct the Commission to retroactively criminalise groups and individuals for action undertaken up to one year before an election that the minister for the Cabinet Office defines as ‘campaigning’.

“For example, activities undertaken before an election is announced are currently not considered electoral activity by the commission, but a minister could change that guidance so a group demonstrating for higher wages for NHS workers could be criminalised if a snap election is called six months later.”

We should not forget either, the report by Business Insider back in July, which revealed that this new law will make it much easier for British elections to be funded by tax exiles and non-domiciled Brits.

The bill would allow UK citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years to join the electoral register, giving them a lifetime right to both vote in and fund elections in the UK. Under the new rules, overseas voters would not have had to previously appear on any electoral register in the UK in order to vote or donate to political parties:

Since 2009, legislation has sat inactive on the UK's statute books that would forbid donations from non-domiciled UK citizens.

However, the law has never been brought into force, as the non-domiciled tax status of individuals is confidential and so cannot be verified by regulators or political parties, the Times reported in 2019.

British citizens living abroad can already make donations through UK registered companies that are ultimately owned offshore - and anyone can donate through shadowy unincorporated associations without checks. However, overseas voters currently have to re-register on an annual basis.

The governing Conservative Party accepted more than £1 million from UK citizens living in tax havens ahead of the 2017 general election through existing methods, the Times reported. The new law will remove these barriers.

This is blatant gerrymandering by the Tories and needs to be opposed.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Tory government continue to blunder on social care reform

In his first speech as Prime Minister on 24 July 2019, Boris Johnson stated that the Government would “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.” The Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto stated that a Conservative Government would seek a cross-party consensus in order to bring forward proposals for reform of how people pay for adult social care. It added that a prerequisite of the proposals will be that “no one needing care has to sell their home to pay for it.”

In the same manifesto the Tories pledged not to increase income tax and national insurance. Over two years later we are still waiting as ministers argue over how to reconcile the two promises, with all the signs being that the wrong choices are going to be made.

The Independent reports that the Prime Minister faces a furious backlash over plans to target younger workers with a manifesto-busting £10bn-plus tax hike to pay for older people’s social care. Anger is focussing on the controversial decision to increase National Insurance contributions (NICs) for around 25 million workers, which is believed to have been agreed, with ministers now wrangling over the exact level of the rise before an announcement next week.

The proposal has come under fire from former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said a NIC hike “disproportionately targets the young” and called instead for a new “health and care premium”. And Liberal Democrats said the floated rise would be “unfair and unjust”, because it will “hit the youngest and the lowest paid whilst protecting the wealthiest”.

The plan has also been blasted by Mr Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings as “a big policy and political blunder” which could cost the prime minister his position:

Writing in his blog, Mr Cummings urged Tory MPs to “scream” for the plans to be torn up, warning that they will be seen by average and low income workers as “another subsidy for the older middle classes”.

Any hike would also breach a Conservative Party promise in its 2019 manifesto not to increase the rates of income tax, NICs or VAT.

Lib Dem health spokesperson Munira Wilson asked: “Has it really taken all this time to make a decision to rip off the people who can least afford to shoulder the burden of social care?

“Some people affected are about to get their £20 per week Universal Credit cut. Now thanks to this government they are getting a cut and a tax hike.”

National Insurance is currently paid at 12.5 per cent of income, but higher earners pay only 2 per cent on salaries above £50,000 and pensioners do not pay the levy.

Campaigners argue that the prime minister’s plan will mean younger, lower-earning workers – many of whom cannot afford to buy their own homes – paying more in order to fulfil Mr Johnson’s promise that the elderly will not have to sell their homes to pay for care.

Alicia Kennedy, director of the Generation Rent campaign for private tenants, said: “National Insurance disproportionately affects young people and lower paid workers who are already struggling to pay rent, let alone save for their retirement.

“The wealthy minority who get their income from renting out property, owning a business, have inherited wealth or investments won’t pay a penny more.

“Coming out of the pandemic, 353,000 private renters are in rent debt. They can’t save, and are further than ever from being able to buy their own home. An increase to National Insurance will not help the government meet its pledge to turn generation rent into generation buy.”

Everybody agrees that social care needs to be properly funded but let's ensure that money comes from those who can afford it, not the least well-off.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Food and drink exports to EU suffer ‘disastrous’ decline

This Tory government's failure to secure a proper post-Brexit trade deal with the EU is costing the country dear both in terms of jobs and our balance of trade. As the Guardian reports, exports of food and drink to the EU have suffered a “disastrous” decline in the first half of the year because of Brexit trade barriers, with sales of beef and cheese hit hardest.

They say that Food and Drink Federation (FDF) producers lost £2bn in sales, a dent in revenue that could not be compensated for by the increased sales in the same period to non-EU countries including China and Australia:

Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the FDF, said: “The return to growth in exports to non-EU markets is welcome news, but it doesn’t make up for the disastrous loss of £2bn in sales to the EU. It clearly demonstrates the serious difficulties manufacturers in our industry continue to face and the urgent need for additional specialist support.”

He said the difficulties now facing British food and drinks manufacturers and farmers were compounded by the lorry driver and warehouse workers shortages, which were choking the supply chain.

“At the same time, we are seeing labour shortages across the UK’s farm-to-fork food and drink supply chain, resulting in empty spaces on UK shop shelves, disruptions to deliveries and decreased production,” Goudie said. “Unless steps are taken to address these issues, the ability of businesses to fulfil vital export orders will be impacted.”

By product category, the biggest falls in sales to the EU have been in dairy and meat: beef exports were down 37%, cheese down 34% and milk and cream down 19% in the first half of 2021 compared with the equivalent six months in 2019.

Exports to nearly all EU member states fell significantly, including a loss of more than £500m in sales to Ireland, while sales to Germany, Spain and Italy were each down around a half since the first half of 2019.

But year-on-year exports of salmon and whisky, two of Scotland’s flagship products, were up 27% and 20%.

Exporters have struggled with the extra paperwork and administrative costs that came into force on 1 January 2021, with companies required to document their products for trading standards, customs and health reasons before entry to the EU.

Food exporters are particularly exposed because of the physical sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks that were not necessary before Brexit, with lorries facing partial or full unloads in Calais and other ports if any of the paperwork is missing.

Industry leaders said predictions that some companies would simply move their export production operations to an EU country are being realised.

Not only was none of this not on the side of Boris's bus, but these trends are completely contrary to what he and other government ministers told us when the country voted to leave the EU in the first place.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Ministers’ plans for voter ID risk breaching human rights law

The Independent has more on government plans to insist on voters producing IDs at polling stations.

They say that a report, published by parliament’s cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights, has warned that the demand to show photo ID at the polling station could deny the right to vote to large numbers of people and create barriers to minority groups participating in elections. They estimate that the plan could discriminate against as many as 2 million elderly, disabled and ethnic minority people.

And the report found that the problem which the measure is supposed to solve, of people fraudulently passing themselves off as someone else to vote, was “rare”, with just 171 allegations since 2014, leading to nine cautions and three convictions:

Instead, the committee said, the government could massively increase involvement in democracy by introducing automatic voter registration, following Electoral Commission research that up to 9.4m people eligible to vote are not on the electoral roll or are registered at the wrong address. This included around 25 per cent of black and Asian voters and 45 per cent of 18-24 year-olds, compared to an average of 17 per cent overall and 10 per cent of over-70s.

Ministers can expect stiff opposition to the Elections Bill when it comes back to the House of Commons for its second reading on Tuesday next week, with many MPs concerned that it will exclude marginalised groups from voting.

A police office tussles with a demonstrator on Cromwell Road outside the Natural History Museum during a protest by members of Extinction Rebellion in London Members of the British armed forces 16 Air Assault Brigade walk to the air terminal after disembarking a Royal Airforce Voyager aircraft at Brize Norton, Oxfordshire Today’s report warned that the government must do more to demonstrate the need to voter ID and mitigate the potential barriers to voting it will create, in order to avoid breaches of the Human Rights Convention duties to hold free and fair elections.

The committee heard evidence that many of the 2.1m people who do not currently have photo ID in the form or passports, driving licences and other official documentation would be reluctant to sign up for the Voter Card proposed by the government as an alternative way of proving their identity at the polling station.

Cabinet Office research found that 42 per cent of those with no photo ID said they were unlikely to apply.

And Operation Black Vote director Simon Woolley told the committee that introducing a requirement for voter ID would fuel distrust among ethnic minority communities and could have “a monstrous negative effect, which some have characterised as voter suppression”.

Lord Woolley said he feared that the Voter Card would act as “another impediment for a group that is already hesitant about fully engaging in the democratic process”, warning: “Quite a few people in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities feel that a Government who do not have their best interests at heart may want to find a route for these ID cards as Big Brother to watch over them.”

The committee said that the government’s aim to improve the integrity of elections was “clearly legitimate”, but warned: “Any measures must be proportionate to the scale of the problem and not interfere with the right to vote so as to render the right to vote ineffective.”

Voter ID was being proposed at a time when public confidence in elections is at an “all-time high”, with Electoral Commission research finding that 87 per cent believe voting is safe from fraud and abuse - up from 80 per cent in 2020.

This bill is looking more and more like American-style voter suppression.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Councils warn of lack of clarity on resettling Afghan refugees

I suppose a government that is fundamentally opposed to letting asylum seekers and refugees into our country can't be blamed when they get it wrong on a cohort they have to admit, but it doesnt help those individuals fleeing the Taliban nor does it do anything for the authorities tasked with the resettlement process.

The Independent reports that the Home Office’s plan to resettle Afghan refugees has come under fire from local councils who say they have been left “scrambling” to meet the urgent needs of new arrivals due to a “lack of clarity” from central government.

The paper says that in some cases, houses procured for evacuated families have remained empty for more than a week despite the Home Office saying the process would take one day while charities have said that the time Afghans spend in hotels should be as “short as possible”, as living in this setting can have a detrimental impact on their mental health:

The UK has evacuated 15,000 people from Kabul over the last fortnight – including 5,000 British nationals and more than 8,000 Afghans who worked for the UK and their families, as well as many highly vulnerable people. Hundreds had already prior to this under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, which opened in June.

All arrivals are required to spend 10 days in hotel quarantine, and are usually then moved to what are called “holding hotels” while local authorities find permanent housing for them.

The letter, coordinated by the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, raises concern about the “large number of refugees” the Home Office has placed in hotel accommodation, “sometimes for many months at a time, without prior notice or engagement, without giving prior notice to or having engagement with local councils”.

It says it is “vital” that councils are given clarity “as soon as possible” on the financial support the government intends to make available for them to permanent housing for recently arrived Afghan nationals.

“Failure to work in partnership with local authorities to ensure people are placed in suitable accommodation will bring about substantial challenges for those seeking to build a new life and the local authority,” it adds.

It seems that it wasnt just the evacuation from Afghanistan that has taken the government by surprise but also the consequences arising from that. They really need to do better.

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