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Tuesday, May 31, 2022

No longer any need for integrity, accountability, and honesty?

It is a bit galling to get back from a weekend at the Hay Festival to find that the whole basis of serving the public has been turned upside down, even more so when the changes are self-serving and being brought in by a Prime Minister, who never really embraced the Nolan primciples in the first place.

As the Independent reports, the PM has rewritten the Ministerial Code of Conduct to avoid having to resign if the inquiry by the Commons privileges committee into whether he lied to parliament over lockdown-breaching parties at 10 Downing Street rules against him. 

In doing so he has removed previous references to the principles of “integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership” which should guide ministers’ conduct.

So much for the Prime Minister's pledge to address the scandal and sleaze engulfing his government or the frequent and flagrant breaches of standards and rule-breaking that have taken place on his watch.

As ever, these changes, brought in to fix the crisis facing the Johnson government, will have long-term consequences. 

The Nolan Principles have been a staple of public life for thirty years. They have set the standard by which elected officials are measured. What are the consequences of this change for the thousands of councillors, MPs, MLAs, MSs and MSPs, who have largely obeyed the rules all these years? Has Johnson opened the door to a watering down of their standards code as well?

In truth, the Prime Minister and cabinet members in all administrations have always been slightly above the reach of this code, with the power to avoid inquiries if sanctioned at the very top. But these changes will do nothing to reinforce confidence in politicians, already badly damaged by the Partygate scandal in 10 Downing Street.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Cause and Causality


Friday, May 27, 2022

How ditching green policies cost us money

The Chancellor of the Exchequer may have finally relented and decided to hand out the proceeds of a windfall tax to poorer households but, as the Independent reports, earlier decisions by the Tory Government could have saved us all a lot of money, and done so on an annual basis.

The paper says that a new analysis has found that households could have saved more than £500 a year on energy bills during the cost-of-living crisis if the government had not scrapped a green policy for homes:

UK parliamentary research - seen by The Independent - increased previous estimates to reflect soaring household bills, which are expected to rise even further later this year.

It estimated the missed potential for savings will rise to as high as £525 a year by autumn - up from around £370 a year currently.

The Liberal Democrats - who commissioned the research - said shelving tough environmental rules for new homes was “short-sighted” and ended up “slapping hundreds of pounds” onto bills.

The Zero Carbon Homes policy would have prevented new houses from releasing a net amount of carbon into the atmosphere during day-to-day running.

Among other factors, this would have been achieved through good energy efficiency – considered key to keeping bills, as well as emissions, down.

It was scrapped in 2015 - the year before it was due to kick in.

A subsequent report estimated the zero-carbon homes policy would have saved recently-built houses up to £200 a year on energy bills.

The House of Commons library has been revising these estimates in line with the changing cost of energy bills.

It previously found large family homes built within the last six years would be saving up to £370 a year on bills under the current energy price cap, had they been covered by the scrapped green rules.

When the price cap rises by an expected 42 per cent in October, it said the figure would rise to as high as £525 a year. At minimum, the figure would be £376 a year.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary researchers said terraced homes would be missing out on between £227 and £312 a year of savings on energy bills. For flats, it would be between £142 and £199 a year.

As Wera Hobhouse, the Lib Dem climate change spokesperson, says, the Tories have a “shameful record on energy efficiency”.

“Many are having to choose between heating and eating because of the Conservatives cost of living crisis,” she said. “Scrapping zero carbon homes was a shambolic and short-sighted policy that is hitting people hard.”

Perhaps it is time government planned for the long term instead of always going for the quick fix.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Johnson hangs on in the face of revolting Tories

Despite a damning report from Sue Gray and photos of Boris Johnson at a party during lockdown, the Prime Minister continues to hang onto his job, and senior Tories can still be found to defend him in the media. However, not all Tories are so supportive.

The Mirror reports that three more Tory MPs have broken ranks in the wake of Sue Gray's report. One of them, Conservative MP John Baron, said he did not believe Johnson's claims that he was unaware of the scale of lockdown boozing in Downing Street laid bare in the dossier, and that his repeated assurances in Parliament that there was no rule-breaking is simply not credible:

In a statement on his website, the Basildon and Billericay MP said: "Having always said I would consider all the available evidence before deciding, I'm afraid the Prime Minister no longer enjoys my support - I can no longer give him the benefit of the doubt."

The Brexiteer backbencher tore into the "shameful pattern of misbehaviour during the pandemic as the rest of us kept to the Covid regulations" in No10 and Whitehall, adding: "Those responsible for setting the rules have a special duty to adhere to them."

Conservative David Simmonds, who was elected in the 2019 Tory landslide, also added his voice to those urging Mr Johnson to quit.

The Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner MP, whose constituency borders the PM's Uxbridge seat, said: "It is clear that while the government and our policies enjoy the confidence of the public, the Prime Minister does not. Accordingly, it is time for him to step down."

It comes after York Outer MP Julian Sturdy said the PM should go as Ms Gray's report "clearly shows the Prime Minister has presided over a widespread culture of disregard for the coronavirus regulations".

He added: "While I thought it important to wait for the conclusion of the Metropolitan Police investigation and the publication of the Sue Gray report, I am now unable to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt and feel it is in the public interest for him to resign."

Mr Sturdy's statement landed as the Prime Minister gave a speech to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers on Wednesday night to try win back the trust of his party.

Tories can mount a leadership challenge if 54 MPs send letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister to 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady. There is no indication if that is likely to happen, but my bet is that it will not.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

How long can Johnson survive as Prime MInister?

Things are getting rather hot for Boris Johnson at the moment, and it doesn't look good for the Metropolitan Police and their apparently selective pursuit of the parties in Number Ten either.

The Guardian says that Downing Street officials have started briefing the media anonymously, going so far as alleging partygoers in Downing Street were so cramped together at a leaving do attended by Boris Johnson that some were forced to sit on each other’s laps:

No 10 officials speaking anonymously to BBC Panorama said they sometimes arrived at work to find bins overflowing with empty bottles from parties the night before and security guards who tried to stop one illegal gathering taking place were laughed at.

Their testimony comes as the prime minister braces for fresh embarrassment with the long-awaited publication of a report by the senior civil servant Sue Gray, likely to be completed on Wednesday.

Some of those who worked in Downing Street said social events became routine during the pandemic despite strict laws forbidding indoor and outdoor mixing.

After Johnson was pictured drinking at a leaving do for his then director of communications, Lee Cain, in November 2020 when England was in its second lockdown, one of those who attended told the BBC: “There was about 30 people if not more in a room. Everyone was stood shoulder to shoulder, some people on each others laps.”

They described staff in Downing Street reacting with disbelief when Johnson claimed in parliament all rules had been followed when the Partygate scandal first emerged last December. The source recalled: “We were watching it all live and we just sort of looked at each other in disbelief like: why? Why is he denying this?”

They said they had felt like Johnson had given “permission” for the events to take place, adding: “He was there! He may have just been popping through on the way to his flat because that’s what would happen.

“You know, he wasn’t there saying: ‘This shouldn’t be happening!’ He wasn’t saying: ‘Can everyone break up and go home? Can everyone socially distance? Can everyone put masks on?’ No, he wasn’t telling anybody that. He was grabbing a glass for himself!”

Another Downing Street staff member suggested parties were held “every week” in the office, with “wine time Fridays” a regular feature in the press team’s diary at the end of the week.

The source said life appeared to continue as normal during the pandemic in No 10. “We saw it as our own bubble,” they admitted.

Once more the Metropolitian Police have serious questions to answer as to why they seemingly targeted junior staff and left the bosses relatively untouched. But with those staff now talking freely, surely it is only a matter of time before Tory MPs decide that enough is enough, and that Johnson must go.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Cost of living crisis gets worse

The Guardian reports that Ofgem is on course to raise the cap on household energy bills to about £2,800 in October.

The paper says that the increase in the cap would push up the average annual bill by more than £800, after the regulator increased it by £693 in April to £1,971. The regulator’s chief executive, Jonathan Brearley, told parliament’s business, energy and industrial strategy committee the figure was provisional but was based on the most accurate current estimate:

He said he would be writing to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on Tuesday afternoon to confirm the soaring cost of wholesale gas, which has risen by as much as 10 times the normal price in recent months, and a rise in electricity costs, were to blame for a 40% increase in the average bill.

Brearley said: “The price changes we have seen in the gas market are genuinely a once-in-a-generation event not seen since the oil crisis of the 1970s.”

Energy prices pushed the consumer prices index (CPI) to 9% in April, fuelling criticism that the government has failed to protect millions of low-income families from making the choice of feeding themselves or heating their homes.

The Resolution Foundation thinktank said raising the energy price cap to around £2,800 in October could mean 9.6 million families across England fall into fuel stress this winter, defined as spending at least a 10th of their total budgets on energy bills alone.

“At the moment 5 million families are considered to be in fuel stress, while across the poorest 30% of the population, up to three-quarters of families could fall into fuel stress,” the thinktank said.

It just gets worse and worse.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Households hit harder by inflation than official statistics show

There is not much good news about at the moment, and this article in the Guardian underlines that trend.

The paper says that the cost of basic goods and services needed by the average two-child household in the UK has risen by £400 a month, according to an analysis that suggests families are experiencing faster inflation than official figures indicate:

Costs for families with two children have risen by an annual rate of 13%, according to the research from Loughborough University, faster than the 9% rate of inflation found in official statistics – itself a 40-year high.

UK households are grappling with a cost-of-living crisis, as prices rise significantly faster than wages, cutting spending power.

Energy price rises have been a particular driver, with the recovery from coronavirus lockdowns followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine driving a global price surge. The UK wholesale natural gas futures price was £148 per therm on Friday, well over three times higher than a year before.

Food prices have also increased by 9.3% over the past year, while childcare costs are up 6.7%. The researchers found that families are spending about an extra £120 per month on energy, £90 more on transport including petrol, and £65 on childcare.

The figures form part of research on the minimum income standard (MIS), an ongoing programme to work out budgets for different household types to match people’s perceptions of a “minimum acceptable standard of living in the UK”. They are widely used by charities and government, and form part of the basis of calculations of a living wage.

Families are rationing showers to once a week, giving up milk in their tea and eating cold meals to avoid using the oven to keep costs down, said Peter Matejic, a deputy director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity that funds the MIS research.

It doesn't get any better, does it?

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Money can't buy me love

In the same week that Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and his wife, Akshata Murty, made the rich list, as the 222nd wealthiest people in the UK, with a combined £730m fortune, the Independent reports that he is not above using other people's money to fix his standing with the electorate.

The paper says that Sunak is spending a further £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash on focus groups and polling, sparking a claim that he is trying to “repair his image”:

Researchers have been hired to carry out two focus groups and one national online poll each week until February 2023 – taking the total outlay over two years to more than £1.35m, Labour has said.

Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, said the chancellor had shifted from testing public opinion about the Covid pandemic to making such spending “a permanent fixture”.

The new contracts were awarded after Mr Sunak “told the British people he has no money to ease the cost of living crisis and that cutting their energy bills would be ‘silly’,” she alleged.

“The government apparently has half a million to spend on spin doctors while Jacob Rees-Mogg is threatening to axe thousands of civil service jobs in the name of cost saving,” Ms Rayner said.

“At the start of the pandemic, the Treasury justified their spending on focus groups and polls as an emergency measure to test the impact of different policy options. But now this is little more than a taxpayer-funded vanity exercise for a chancellor desperate to repair his image.”

There was controversy when the first contract, worth £81,600, was handed to a Tory-run PR firm called Hanbury Strategy, founded by David Cameron’s former director of strategy.

The government said the purpose was “to inform immediate policy-making decisions and communications”, after Covid struck in 2020.

Two further contracts worth £205,680 and £552,862 were given to Hanbury in August and December 2020, again to test public opinion on the Treasury’s response to the continuing crisis.

But a new £500,000 contract with Deltapoll, described as being for the “provision of public opinion focus groups and online polling”, makes no mention of the pandemic, Labour pointed out.

Perhaps Sunak should take a lesson from Paul McCartney and his lyric 'money can't buy me love'. The sooner the better.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

The cost of living crisis and food prices

There has been a lot of publicity of the impact of the cost of living crisis on energy and fuel costs but, as the Guardian reports, there is also an impact on basic food costs.

The paper says that a Which? analysis has found that cereal, mushrooms and cheese among the items to have risen the most in cost, with some grocery prices rising by as much as twenty per cent:

Which? said the items that had recorded the biggest price rises included a 500g box of Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut corn flakes cereal, which had gone up by 21.4% at Tesco, Asda’s own-label closed cup mushrooms (250g) which were up by the same percentage and Cathedral City extra mature cheddar (350g) which rose by 21.1% at Ocado.

The consumer group said it had examples of shrinkflation – where products were smaller but selling for the same price – and that between December 2021 and February this year the availability of some value ranges had been more limited than previously.

These ranges recorded the lowest inflation overall, with prices increasing by just 0.2%, while standard ranges rose by 2.8% and own-label premium ranges were up by 3.2%.

Across the 20 categories of groceries Which? looked at, fizzy drinks had the biggest average price rises, at 5.9%, followed by butters and spreads, at 4.9%.

On Wednesday, the Office for National Statistics reported food and drink prices were up by an average of 6% year on year, but some everyday products, including milk and pasta, had increased by more than 10%. Its figures, which cover the year to April, suggest many of the items Which? reviewed will be even more expensive now.

Sue Davies, the Which? head of food policy and consumer rights, said “eye-watering” price rises were being exacerbated by other factors to put “huge pressure” on household shopping budgets.

“During an unrelenting cost of living crisis, consumers should be able to easily choose the best value product for them without worrying about shrinkflation or whether their local store stocks budget ranges.”

The causes of these price rises are many, but Brexit may well be one of them, and it is almost certain that if the UK Government provoke a trade war of the Norther Ireland protocol, then things will get worse.

Friday, May 20, 2022

International repercussions for Truss's rejection of the Northern Ireland protocol

As predicted, the legislation proposed by the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, is already making waves abroad. The Guardian reports that the US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has warned that unilateral UK legislation affecting the Northern Ireland protocol could endanger British prospects for a free trade deal with the US.

The paper says that Pelosi’s bluntly worded intervention came two days after Truss, confirmed that the government was planning to table legislation that would nullify parts of the protocol by exempting some goods moving between Great Britain and Ireland from EU customs checks:

Pelosi made clear that she viewed the protocol as essential to maintaining the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement which minimised border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland protocol was the outcome of negotiations with the EU on how to keep the frictionless border between the Irelands and maintain EU customs boundaries after Brexit.

“As I have stated in my conversations with the prime minister, the foreign secretary and members of the House of Commons, if the United Kingdom chooses to undermine the Good Friday accords, the Congress cannot and will not support a bilateral free trade agreement with the United Kingdom,” the Speaker said in a written statement. The EU has already warned of a potential trade war if the UK moves ahead with its legislation.

“It is deeply concerning that the United Kingdom now seeks to unilaterally discard the Northern Ireland protocol, which preserves the important progress and stability forged by the accords. It continues to enjoy strong bipartisan and bicameral support in the United States Congress,” Pelosi added.

The warning follows a visit to Washington by the prime minister’s newly appointed special envoy for the Northern Ireland protocol in the US, Conor Burns, to explain the UK position to the Biden administration and to Congress, which is to blame the EU for inflexibility.

US officials were irritated however that Burns, having emphasised his close personal relationship with Boris Johnson, had not warned them that Johnson was about to visit Northern Ireland. Burns assured them that no decisions had been made on whether to pursue new legislation, days before Truss made her announcement.

“Respectful of the will of the British people and of Brexit, I urge constructive, collaborative and good-faith negotiations to implement an agreement that upholds peace,” Pelosi wrote on Thursday evening. “The children of Northern Ireland, who have never known the bloody conflict and do not want to go back, deserve a future free of the violence where all may reach their fulfillment.”

The big question of course, is whether this government really cares that their single-minded pursuit of legislation to appease a small minority of little Englanders, isolationists and their rich backers is going to wreck businesses across the UK, while making the cost of living crisis worse for millions of people?

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Why Derry Girls should be compulsory viewing for all politicians

I haven't had a chance to catch up with the final one hour Derry Girls special yet, but perusing Twitter, I see that it finished on a note of hope, as the characters go to vote in favour of the Good Friday agreement.

For all the grandstanding by unionist politicians, it is easy to forget that when that agreement was signed in 1998, it was subject to a referendum on both sides of the border. Northern Ireland voted in favour by 71.1% to 28.9%. The Republic of Ireland was even more emphatic, with 94.39% agreeing to its terms.

Derry Girls is both funny and bitter-sweet. It captures perfectly the horror and the tragedy of the 1990s in Northern Ireland, together with the fortitude of ordinary people, as they somehow got on with their lives amongst the bloodshed, the intimidation and the hatred.

Nobody wants to go back to that, and yet the almost casual rejection of the EU by the British people, in another referendum, threatens that peace process. The hope encapsulated in the line; 'What if no-one else has ro die', cannot be discarded so easily.

The fact is that now we have left the EU, arrangements have to be put in place to protect the Good Friday Agreement, to protect that hard-won peace. 

As Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organisation says in this Guardian article, the UK has to accept that a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is inevitable, if the measures put in place to stop the fighting in 1998 are to endure.

We cannot allow selfish unionist politicians and self-interested little Englander Tory Ministers to wreck all that has been achieved. They should be made to sit down in front of that Derry Girls special and made to watch it over and over again, until the point is driven home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Covid fraud losses build up

If we thought that the government had got a grip on the billions of pounds lost to fraud during that Covid pandemic, then we need to think again. The Independent reports that MPs have been warned that the “eye-watering” amount of taxpayers’ money lost to fraudsters who exploited Covid support schemes could be even higher than previously feared.

The paper says that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has estimated that £4.9bn has been lost from loans issued to ineligible businesses during the pandemic. But the Public Accounts Committee said the total sum squandered “could go even higher” because of unknown amounts lost to fraud and error from grant funding given to businesses via local authorities:

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said the government had offered “an open goal to fraudsters and embezzlers and they have cashed in – adding billions and billions to taxpayer woes”.

In a damning report, the committee said it was worried that attempts to recover lost money will be in vain “as the money will have been spent and the trails will have long ago gone cold”.


Suitcases filled with cash from the Covid loans were seized at the border as suspected embezzlers attempted to smuggle them out of the country, The Times reported last month.

The committee also found that the department distributed £21.8bn of Covid grant funding to businesses through local authorities, but still “lacks information on recipients” of this money.

The levels of incompetence in this government never ceases to amaze me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Brexit bites

As fuel and energy prices continue to soar, it seems that the cost of food is next. The Mirror reports on the view of the chair of Marks and Spencer that food prices could soar by 10% this year.

Archie Norman, a former Tory MP who chairs the supermarket, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

It wouldn't be surprising to see food price inflation over the course of the year running towards 8% to 10%. But we don't know that yet because it runs through the year, some has gone through now but quite a lot's still to come.”

Asked if food price rises would be “apocalyptic”, he said: “Um, I think, you, you, have to keep it in context.” He said wages were rising well and added he wouldn’t describe it as apocalyptic.

It came moments after official figures showed Britain's jobless rate has fallen to its lowest level for over 47 years - yet workers have seen their pay fall as inflation soars.

Regular pay excluding bonuses dropped by 2.9% in March when taking Consumer Prices Index (CPI) inflation into account - the biggest fall since November 2011.

Yesterday the governor of the Bank of England warned of "apocalyptic" food price rises due to the war in Ukraine.

Andrew Bailey used the eye-popping phrase as he admitted the situation is “very, very difficult” as inflation soars.

And despite talks on whether to use interest rate rises to bring inflation under control, Mr Bailey admitted “there’s not a lot we can do about 80% of it”.

Meanwhile Mr Norman hit out at Brexit checks on goods going into Northern Ireland and the Republic from the rest of the UK - as Boris Johnson prepares to rip up his own rules.

He said: “At the moment wagons arriving in the Republic of Ireland have to carry 700 pages of documentation, it takes eight hours to prepare the documentation.

) “Some of the descriptors particularly of animal product have to be written in Latin, it has to be in a certain typeface.”

Mr Norman said it takes 30% more driver time at a “very onerous cost of about £30m”

I wonder if Mr Norman voted to leave the EU or not. It isn't the protocol to blame here, but Brexit itself, and the deal Boris Johnson signed, despite all the warnings. Now, it is ordinary families who are reaping the consequences of this governmental incompetence.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Cronyism behind closed doors?

The Independent reports that the British government has refused to reveal whether intelligence agencies expressed concerns about the decision to award a noble title and a seat in Parliament to a newspaper owner whose father was a KGB agent.

The paper says that lawmakers voted earlier this year to order the government to release documents related to the appointment of Russia-born newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords. 

Opposition politicians want to know about Prime Minister Boris Johnson's involvement in the awarding of a place in Parliament’s unelected upper chamber to Lebedev, whose oligarch father Alexander Lebedev is a former KGB officer. However, Ministers are resisting:

British media have reported that Johnson overruled British intelligence agencies’ concerns about the 2020 ennobling of Lebedev, who owns the Evening Standard and is a shareholder in The Independent. The government insists that all Lords appointments are vetted by a commission.

Two weeks after the deadline to comply with lawmakers' request, Johnson's Conservative government on Thursday published partial documents: the blank form Lebedev was required to fill in for the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the public citation announcing his appointment as Lord Lebedev of Siberia, a list of the other peerages awarded at the same time and a letter congratulating him on the news.

The government said it was withholding other information “to protect national security.”

“Lord Lebedev is a man of good standing,” Cabinet Office Minister Michael Ellis said. “No complaint has been made about his personal conduct. He has been vocal in his criticism of the Putin regime.”

Ellis said that “when considering requests for information from Parliament, the government has a responsibility to consider whether it is in the public interest to place information into the public domain.”

He said the government plans to send information relating to “any national security matters arising” to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, whose meetings and findings are normally kept private.

So much for open government,=.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Party Central

The Guardian reports that the Metropolitian police have announced that more than 100 fixed-penalty notices have now been handed out for breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street and Whitehall:

In a brief statement on Thursday, it said the total had reached twice that. The investigation, which covers 12 separate events, is still ongoing.

It is understood one of the gatherings for which fines have begun to be issued is the cheese and wine party which Number 10 aides were filmed joking about.

It is possible that more fines have now been issued relating to Number 10 Downing Street than any other property in the UK. It is no wonder that people don't trust politicians.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Stitch-up or reform?

The publication of the joint Labour/Plaid proposals for Senedd reform fall down on a number of grounds in my view, but the two main ones are democratic accountability and practicality.

I am a reluctant supporter of expanding the Senedd. It has been clear for some time that there are insufficient members to properly scrutinise the government and all the primary and secondary legislation that Ministers propose. But any increase in numbers must be proportionate to the workload, affordable and enhance the democratic process.

Today's Telegraph column by Philip Johnston, in response to the Queen's speech, suggests that 'Politics has become a dismal race to pass as many pointless laws as possible.' Wales is not exempt from that charge, with Ministers occasionally proposing laws to solve problems that could be resolved through better governance. One of the reasons we need more members in the Senedd is to counter that tendency.

On the democratic accountability point, the proposed adoption of closed lists, electing 96 members in 16 constituencies through the d'hondt system, seems to me to have achieved peak control freakery. It is not going to be the members who are accountable to the public, but the parties. And it will largely be party bosses who decide who will serve in the Senedd, not voters.

Although the system will be more proportional than at present, a full STV system would produce a more representative outcome, as well as allow voters to decide which of the candidates are going to represent them. The attempt to achieve gender parity is welcomed, but it is crude, possibly tokenistic and does not take account of a recent trend for non-binary candidates and councillors.

Given the centralising, statist nature of both Labour and Plaid Cymru, I suppose this is the best we could get, but it is voters who will lose out and the new Senedd will be the poorer for it.

It is my view that the public can be convinced of the case for increasing Senedd members, if the proposal looks modest and realistic enough, and does not come across as self-serving. I believe that a 96 member Senedd fails on all of these counts.

Ninety-six is at the upper range of any expansion. It is more than in Northern Ireland, and only 34 fewer than Scotland, whose electorate is twice ours. The boundary changes being instituted for Westminster will be reducing the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 32, while the 1995 local government reorganisation effectively halved the number of councillors in Wales. There is therefore room to replace these politicians to make devolution work better.

However, the case for 96 MSs has not been made. It feels like a further centralisation of power, when we should be enabling local councils to take responsibility for and deliver more for their communities.

Practically too, it is difficult. The present Senedd chamber is designed to be expanded to accommodate 80 members. To add another 16 will require a major remodelling, which will be disruptive and expensive. 

The alternative is to change the way the Senedd operates altogether, which is possible, but would constitute a major shift in political culture. I am not sure the present leadership are ready for that, or even that they have thought it through.

Further expense will of course come from finding offices for the additional MSs, most probably in another building, as well as support staff and equipment. I am not sure that the quoted £12 million cost will be anywhere near enough.

In conclusion, a reformed Senedd of eighty members, elected through STV, seems to be realistic, supportable, properly accountable and affordable. The present proposals do not meet any of that criteria.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Government set to break international law and plunge the UK into a trade war

It is now becoming increasingly clear that Boris Johnson's government are prepared to unilaterally ditch the Northern Ireland protocol, which he negotiated and hailed as a massive success for the UK in December 2019, in the pursuit of an impossible Brexit dream, and in doing so plunge the island of Ireland into a crisis that could unravel the whole peace process.

The Times reports that the foreign secretary has concluded that there is little point trying to reach a Brexit deal with the European Union and will move as soon as next week to scrap large parts of the Northern Ireland protocol in British law.

As a result officials working for Liz Truss have drawn up draft legislation that would unilaterally remove the need for all checks on goods being sent from Britain for use in Northern Ireland. It would also allow businesses in the province to disregard EU rules and regulations and take away the power of the European Court of Justice to rule on issues relating to Northern Ireland.

The paper says that the bill goes much further than had previously been expected by explicitly scrapping large parts of the protocol rather than simply giving ministers the power to do so in the future, and that if passed, it would override the protocol agreed by Johnson in 2019 and put the UK in breach of its obligations under the withdrawal agreement. The consequences of such a law could be very severe:

Truss has been told that the strategy, which could be announced next Tuesday, will result in the EU suspending all co-operation with the UK, except on Ukraine, and instigating legal action against the government.

She has also been told that the bill, if passed by MPs, could lead to a trade war with the EU imposing tariffs on UK exports and potentially even terminating the agreed free trade deal.

We are now in the realm of an irresponsible government in pursuit of ideological purity. And this is not just about high-minded international agreements. There are real consequences for ordinary people if the EU retaliates, as they are entitled to do, which will make the current cost of living criss seem like a minor blip.

Monday, May 09, 2022

My take on the Welsh local elections

In contrast to England, the Welsh council seats being fought this year were last contested five years ago, in 2017. At that time, Jeremy Corbyn was at the height of his unpopularity, and the Tories were riding high in the polls, with Theresa May poised to plunge her party into a misguided and disastrous General Election.

The base from which the opposition parties approached this year’s elections, therefore, was not a very healthy one. In 2017, Welsh Labour had lost 112 seats and a number of councils to no overall control. In contrast, the Tories had gained 79 seats and consolidated their hold on Monmouthshire. Plaid Cymru gained 38 seats.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats had emerged from the 2017 council elections with just 59 councillors. 10 down on the previous election. It was not a good year for us, as the long, slow recovery from the Clegg coalition years continued to hamper our efforts.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats performance in Wales has always lagged behind our neighbours on the other side of Offa’s Dyke, simply because we have had to compete with a better resourced nationalist party for protest and centre-ground voters.

Other differences with England this time, included the enfranchisement of 16- and 17-year-olds, and early voting experiments in some areas. Parties no longer needed to secure 10 signatures on each nomination, which made it much easier to get candidates in place quickly.

We also appeared to be much better organised, with Powys in particular, at last coming into its own. In the past, we have held parliamentary and Senedd seats in Brecon and Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire without paying too much attention to our local government base, and we paid the price.

This time we got candidates in place across the county and campaigned effectively. It made a real difference and will hopefully help us recapture those seats in the future.

With 1,232 seats and 22 councils up for grabs it was essential that the Welsh Liberal Democrats put up a good showing, however at close of nominations we only had 284 candidates, slightly up on last time, exposing the fact that we remain weak and disorganised in many parts of Wales.

As campaigning got underway, a number of trends emerged. Firstly, the Tories were struggling, more so even than they were in England. Their net loss of 86 seats was proportionally worse than elsewhere in the UK, losing 40% of their Welsh council seats altogether, and their failure to hold onto Monmouthshire was a major blow. This was especially so, as the council leader had been openly critical of Boris Johnson, which he had hoped would provide some protection.

Labour benefitted from the Welsh identify carved out by their First Minister, evidenced by the distinct approach taken by the Welsh Government during the pandemic. Their net gain of 67 seats was actually better than their performance in any of the other nations, both numerically and proportionally, and they regained two councils from no overall control.

However, they failed to retake all the seats they lost in 2017 and saw Neath Port Talbot, a flagship Welsh council, fall to no overall control. On balance their results fell short of a general election winning position, and highlighted continuing disillusion with them, with Keir Starmer and with politics in general, in a country dominated by Labour.

Plaid Cymru certainly took comfort from the fact that they were able to take majority control of three more councils, taking their number up to four, but this was very much a heartland consolidation. In fact the nationalists had a net loss of six seats and struggled to make an impact outside of the Welsh-speaking west.

For the Welsh Liberal Democrats, these elections were very much a curate’s egg. We made a net gain of eleven seats (the first net gain since 2008) and became the largest party in Powys (at last) with 24 councillors. We also made gains in Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, and Swansea, taking seats from Labour in the last two authorities.

I am pleased to say that in my own authority of Swansea, we increased our group size from seven to eleven, to become the official opposition in our own right. However, it was not such a rosy picture elsewhere.

We lost ground in Cardiff and Newport, and were effectively wiped out in Bridgend, Blaenau Gwent, and Monmouthshire. There are a number of councils such as Carmarthenshire, Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil, Torfaen and the Vale of Glamorgan, where we continue to have no representation.

In the whole of South East Wales, we now have just one councillor, while our weakness in other parts of Wales underlines organisational and political issues that we have failed to address.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have once more been pushed back to our heartland areas in rural mid-Wales. Some success in urban areas like Swansea and Cardiff do not compensate for the fact that electorally, at least, we can no longer claim to be a Wales-wide force.

If we are to change that then there needs to be much more focus on rebuilding organisations, recruiting members and candidates, and instituting all-year round campaigning in what are effectively black-hole areas. We have to start now if we are to make an impact in future elections.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Post-Brexit trade deal breaks promise on animal welfare

Those who voted for Brexit cannot say they were not warned, as many of us were clear during the referendum that leaving the EU free trade area and its exacting animal welfare standards could well backfire on us, and on our own agricultural industry, and so it is coming to pass.

The Independent reports that meat from cows kept in harsh conditions banned in the UK will be imported under the trade deal struck with Australia, despite government promises to improve animal welfare after Brexit.

The paper says that cattle are transported for up to 48 hours without eating and drinking in parts of Australia, its High Commissioner has admitted – and those animals are included in the deal hailed by Boris Johnson as a big prize from leaving the EU:

The journeys are more than three times the limit of 14 hours without stopping for food and water in this country, a figure expected to be cut to 10.5 hours under post-Brexit changes.

Compassion in World Farming called the move “completely unacceptable”, while the RSPCA warned it paved the way for further trade deals that will permit “poor animal welfare”.

Australia has raised eyebrows by arguing its Brahman cattle are more “durable” than cows in the UK and therefore able to cope with 48-hour journeys without a break.

George Brandis, the High Commissioner, also told MPs the “vast majority” of its cows live in less remote areas from which journey times are much shorter.

But Barry Gardiner, a member of the Commons environment committee which is investigating the deal, said: “We no longer send children up chimneys in this country.

Australia argues its Brahman cattle are more ’durable’ than UK cows – and can endure 48-hour journeys

“It was never in the latter years very common – but we put a law in place to stop it. The fact it does not happen very often does not mean there should not be a law in place to stop it.”

The committee has questioned other animal welfare practices in Australia, including hot branding, painful cutting of sheep (mulesing) and the lack of CCTV in slaughterhouses to trap rule-breakers.

Yet more government pledges unravelling before our eyes.

Saturday, May 07, 2022

Another cheering election statistic

I could easily blog today on the phenomenal success of the Liberal Democrats and the awful showing by the Tories, that appraently makes a challenge on Boris Johnson's leadership inevitable. However, anotner cheering statistic caught my eye in the Independent, namely their conclusion that far-right and conspiracy theorist political parties have so far won zero seats in the local elections.

The paper says that with almost all the results declared on Friday evening, none of their candidates had been elected and few had received more than a handful of votes:

Counter-extremist group Hope Not Hate called the results “disastrous”, adding: “The UK’s electoral far right have been roundly rejected at the polls.”

The anti-Islam For Britain party, headed by former Ukip leadership candidate Anne Marie Waters, had targeted 14 seats from Exeter to the Wirral.

Its national manifesto proposes policies including banning the burqa, scrapping hate crime legislation and stopping “anti-white discrimination”.

Ms Waters received the highest number of votes out of For Britain’s candidates - 203 - but still came third with only 14 per cent of the vote in Hartlepool.

Some representatives received as few as 11 votes and the party has not yet made any statement on the results.

Britain First, which was allowed to re-register as a political party last year despite leader Paul Golding having convictions for a terror offence and hate crimes, fielded three candidates.

It won no seats but celebrated the 508 votes for its party chair Ashlea Simon, after she finished second in a Salford ward.

On its social media channels, the group said Ms Simon “trounced” the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Green Party, although the winning Labour candidate won more than twice as many votes.

Britain First said it was “onwards and upwards” for its political ambitions, adding: “Rome wasn't built in a day, so the saying goes, and the same is true for Britain First as a political party.”

Its official policies include deporting asylum seekers, banning abortion, castrating rapists and jailing journalists for “false reports”.

The British Democrats, who purport to “defend and preserve the distinctive identity of the British nation” and claim the “very existence of the indigenous population is under unprecedented threat”, lost in the four seats they contested.

The party’s candidates came bottom of the list in Bexley and Basildon, and third in Bradford and Maidstone, having received between 100 and 253 votes each.

The fascist National Front also failed to win any seats, finishing with just a handful of votes in Derbyshire and West Yorkshire.

Several new conspiracy theorist groups also fielded candidates, following an explosion in activity during the coronavirus activity.

The anti-lockdown Let London Live group, fronted by prominent activist Piers Corbyn, saw poor results in Southwark, Hillingdon and Camden.

Mr Corbyn, the brother of former Labour leader Jeremy, came 9th of 12 candidates in the seat he contested, with 200 votes.

The Freedom Alliance, which purports to “provide real opposition to the state's Covid narrative”, fielded a significant number of candidates across England but received under 1 per cent of votes in all council areas so far declared.

Save Us Now, which focuses on 5G conspiracy theories, won a total of 63 votes in two wards in Gateshead.

Is this the beginning of the end for extremist fringe parties? I fear not.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Tory Council candidates disowning Boris Johnson

The Guardian reports that hundreds of Tories are distancing themselves from Boris Johnson by standing as “Local Conservatives” in Thursday’s council elections, with rebel MPs saying they will gauge support over the weekend for a move against the prime minister. 

The paper says that election leaflets they have seen show local candidates across England playing down their Tory affiliations, eschewing pictures of Johnson and styling themselves as “Local Conservative” on voting ballot papers.

Apparently, conservative central office registered “Local Conservative” as an alternative title in early 2019, when Theresa May’s unpopularity was at its height. It is being widely used in this week’s polls as Conservatives weigh up the electoral costs of the Partygate scandal.

You reap what you sow, I suppose.

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

The great energy rip-off

As if it were not bad enough that energy companies like BP are posting record profits on the back of huge price-hikes, and families struggling to pay for electricity and gas, the Times reports that many of these suppliers are facing “substantial fines” as regulators begin an urgent investigation into claims they are ripping off customers by inflating direct debits to ease cashflow problems.

The paper says that companies hve been given three weeks by business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, to respond to allegations of “completely unacceptable behaviour” relating to unjustified direct debit increases:

Boris Johnson came under increasing pressure on the energy issue yesterday as BP, which announced its highest quarterly profits for 14 years, undermined his reluctance to impose a windfall tax to ease household bills by saying such a move would not affect its investment in Britain. The oil giant reported underlying profits of £4.95 billion for the first three months of the year, more than double those of a year earlier, as it benefited from a sharp rise in oil and gas prices.

Although oil giants’ profits are rising, suppliers are paying more for gas and electricity and passing the costs on. A price cap restricts the amount that customers can be charged, and some suppliers are paying out more for energy than they can pass on. As a result, government sources believe that some suppliers are trying to use higher customer direct debits to build up cash reserves to cover their short-term costs.

Energy companies must inform customers if they are increasing the amount taken each month by direct debit and give them an opportunity to challenge rises based on meter readings. However, since the energy price cap rose by 54 per cent last month there have been anecdotal reports of companies increasing direct debits beyond what customers are using without justification and ignoring or rejecting appeals for a review.

Kwasi Kwarteng has given energy companies three weeks to respond to claims they have increased customers’ direct debitsKwasi Kwarteng has given energy companies three weeks to respond to claims they have increased customers’ direct debits

Ofgem, the energy regulator, has given suppliers three weeks to respond to these reports and has warned them that customer credits cannot be used to “prop up their finances”. It said: “Our top priority is to protect consumers and we recently wrote to suppliers to alert them that we are commissioning a series of market compliance reviews to ensure, amongst other things, that they are handling direct debits fairly.”

Kwarteng said: “Some suppliers have been increasing direct debits beyond what is required. The regulator will not hesitate to swiftly enforce compliance, including issuing substantial fines.”

The scale of the problem is unclear but he has suggested that Ofgem use its powers to levy fines of up to 10 per cent of turnover if abuse is found.

Surely, government cannot ignore this crisis for much longer. They must do more to help consumers.

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Windfall tax needed as BP profits double

As millions of people struggle to pay rising energy costs, it seems that those supplying gas and electricity are getting rich on the hardship of others.

The Guardian reports that soarung oil and gas prices have led to BP’s profits more than doubling to $6.2bn (£5bn) in the first three months of the year.

The paper says that this surplus is well ahead of the $4.5bn expected by analysts and is likely to revive calls for a windfall tax on oil and gas companies from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who argue the money raised could be used to ease the burden for those hardest hit by the cost of living costs. Too right.

A windfall tax is now needed badly if we are to raise the resources needed to help people pay those sky-high fuel bills.

Monday, May 02, 2022

The scandal of our polluted rivers

The Guardian reports on Liberal Democrat research that has found that untreated sewage was discharged into England’s coastal bathing waters for more than 160,000 hours last year. This not just confined to England, as there are a similar problems in Wales, though here it is the Welsh Labour Government that is responsible for regulation. This is backed up by Figures collated by the campaign group Top of the Poops, which reveal that including the bathing waters in Wales, water companies released untreated sewage for 217,804 hours.

The paper says that data compiled by the party using Environment Agency figures on 2021 discharges shows that water companies released raw sewage 25,000 times into designated bathing waters off the English coast:

The bathing water designations – which were created by the EU – are supposed to highlight the country’s cleanest and safest waters for the public. The quality of the water is publicly identified on signs at the bathing beaches, ranging from excellent to poor.

The longest discharges into bathing waters were carried out by United Utilities, which released untreated sewage into sea-swimming spots in its area for almost 75,000 hours. The company’s worst-hit bathing water site was Morecambe South beach.

Southern Water, which was last year fined a record £90m for spilling billions of litres of raw sewage into Hampshire and Kent coastal waters, was responsible for 20,367 hours of untreated sewage discharges into designated bathing spots off the coast in their area.

South West Water discharged sewage into bathing beauty spots for 43,901 hours, with their longest discharge released at Ilfracombe’s Wildersmouth Beach, lasting 1,833 hours.

The figures were released as the official sea-swimming season opened on Sunday. This marks the start of annual monitoring of bathing-water quality, which helps to inform the public about the water at beaches they visit. The season lasts until September.

These figures back up the Liberal Democrats call for a sewage tax on water companies’ profits to be used to clean up coastlines, rivers and lakes. In 2021 water companies released raw sewage into all coastal waters and rivers in England for more than 2.7m hours, in the same year the firms made £2.8bn in operating profits and paid out £27m in bonuses to senior executives.

Surely it is time to reverse that trend.

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Dirty money in the UK

The UK has for a long time enabled the Russian oligarchs, who were the power behind Putin, to build up their wealth and influence. We are in no position to criticise the flow of dirty money that has done so much to support international criminality. But all that has changed, or has it?

The government’s Economic Crime Bill was rushed through parliament last month in a bid to “flush out” illicitly-obtained wealth. It created a new register requiring overseas companies to reveal the name of the “beneficial owner” of properties held in the UK. But it is not enough, and according to Bill Browder, a leading sanctions expert, Britain remains the “world leader” in hiding dirty money.

The Independent reports that Mr Browder has urged Boris Johnson’s government to get to grips with the “enabler community” of lawyers and accountants in London suspected of helping kleptocrats from Russia and elsewhere protect their assets:

The Vladimir Putin critic – who campaigned for the “Magnitsky” human rights sanctions introduced by many western governments – said the UK government must now force so-called enablers to share more information with the authorities.

“The UK is still the world leader of attracting dirty money,” said Mr Browder. “The UK has a chance to close up a major, glaring loophole which attracts everyone to London to launder money.”

He added: “The enabler community in London is more prolific than anywhere else in the world. The oligarchs work with the best lawyers and accountants – those enablers should be obliged under a duty of law to provide information on those being investigated.”

Browder and other anti-corruption campaigners contend that the Economic Crime legislation contains several “loopholes”, which still allow kleptocrats to hide their assets in complex structures such as shell companies and trusts. 

He wants the government to legislate to put clear obligations on the “enablers” to share information about suspected illicit wealth, as well as bring in tough criminal penalties for the failure to do so.

Oligarchs are still able to use shell companies – often set up in the UK’s Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories (CDOTs) – to dodge the authorities. That must be stopped.

It is time the UK cleaned up its act and ceased to be the world's dirty money centre.

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