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Sunday, July 31, 2022

How do we make the monarchy accountable?

Historically, it has been traditional for British monarchs to use their position to enrich themselves and their retainers by accepting funds from dodgy sources, but is that model sustainable in a modern democracy, albeit that the money is now destined for royal charities instead of personal bank accounts.

Prince Charles has already been involved in controversy for personally accepting €3 million in cash stuffed into bags from a Qatari sheikh during private meetings between 2011 and 2015, which was then handed over to the Princes Foundation. 

According to this report, the gifts from controversial Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani were reportedly bundled into a holdall, a suitcase and Fortnum and Mason carrier bags. Why couldn't he just execute a bank transfer like anybody else? What was it that the Sheikh wanted in return, that the donation has to be in untraceable cash?

And now the Times reports that the Prince of Wales accepted a £1 million payment from the family of Osama bin Laden.

The papers says that Charles secured the money from Bakr bin Laden, the patriarch of the wealthy Saudi family, and his brother Shafiq at a meeting at Clarence House in London on October 30, 2013, two years after Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces in Pakistan. Both men are half-brothers of Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda who masterminded the September 11 attacks:

The future king agreed to the money despite the initial objections of advisers at Clarence House and the Prince of Wales Charitable Fund (PWCF), where the offering was donated.

According to sources, several of Charles’s advisers, including at least one trustee, pleaded with him in person to return the money.

One of his household staff said it would cause national outrage if the news leaked to the media. They told the prince that “it would not be good for anybody” if it emerged that he had accepted money from the family of the perpetrator of the worst terrorist attack in history.

A second adviser also urged the prince to return the money. They told the prince he would suffer serious reputational damage if his name appeared in the same sentence as the terrorist, who was responsible for the murder of 67 Britons alongside thousands of Americans on 9/11.

One source said: “The fact that a member of the highest level of the British establishment was choosing to broker deals with a name and a family that not only rang alarm bells, but abject horror around the world . . . why would you do this? What good reason is there to do this?”

They added: “I just didn’t feel any member of the British royal family should be involved in that sort of undertaking.”

Another palace insider said the “great fear” was that the payment would undermine Charles and the charity’s reputation, saying: “There are other sources of money in the world.”

However, Charles was said to have felt it would be too embarrassing to hand the money back to the brothers and feared that they would suspect the reason. It is understood that one household staff member believes they were “very vociferous” with the prince but were “shouted down”. Another adviser to Charles is said to have implored the prince to return the money. Their words caused “great” concern in the palace, but were apparently ignored.

Such poor judgement in a future monarch is of course, very concerning. But that is what happens when you have a head of state that is unaccountable to the people s/he presides over. If nothing else, these latest incidents underline the need to abolish the monarchy altogether and introduce an elected presidency in its place.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Words are cheap

Rumours that Boris Johnson plans to appoint up to 50 new Conservatives to ram contentious legislation through have really set the cat amongst the pigeons.

Apparently, there is a confidential document prepared by CT Group, the influential lobbying firm run by Lynton Crosby which advises Boris Johnson, that proposes to add 39 to 50 new Tory peers and includes an extraordinary requirement that each new peer sign away their right to make their own judgment on legislation that comes before them. They have to give, the paper says, a written undertaking to attend and vote with the government.

Whether this is enforceable is another matter, but it has certainly got former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown's hackles up.

As the Guardian reports, Brown has urged Keir Starmer not to abandon a key leadership pledge of abolishing the House of Lords, warning that plans to “gerrymander” parliament’s upper chamber by flooding it with dozens of Tory peers proves the need for drastic reform.

He says that the plan for new peers to give a written undertaking to support the government in key votes on controversial legislation, likely to include the Northern Ireland protocol bill that would unilaterally override the Brexit deal, “legitimises straightforward bribery” by recommending those who vote loyally be rewarded with special envoy positions, honours and lunches at Chequers:

Although Starmer made it one of his 10 pledges during the 2020 leadership campaign, it is one of several he is accused of backtracking on. Asked about his commitment to “abolish the House of Lords” and “replace it with an elected chamber of regions and nations” last November, Starmer did not repeat it but committed to “change” instead.

Brown said the current appointments system “calls into question the unfettered patronage of the prime minister who alone can recommend appointments to the Queen”.

Both he and Tony Blair declined a resignation honours list, which Brown said had “undermined the reputation of a number of past prime ministers”.

“Johnson’s latest attempt to manipulate the Lords’ system is the culmination of years of constitutional vandalism,” Brown claimed, pointing out the “shameless” appointment of Conservative party donors and eight former party treasurers.

Although defeated in 2008 when he tried to press ahead with Lords reform, Brown said it was “time to flush out who really wants change and who does not”.

Brown may have tried to introduce reform in 2008, but that did not stop Tony Blair and him appointing people to the House of Lords, in some cases, peers who were significant donors to the Labour Party. It is also the case that the last serious attempt to reform the House of Lords, by Nick Clegg, was defeated by Labour intransigence.

Radical reform is desperately needed, but beware of politicians who talk the talk, and don't deliver.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Energy firms profit at expense of ordinary families

With average annual energy bills predicted to hit £3,850 from January, triple the level at the beginning of this year, one would have thought that the energy companies are also struggling with market forces. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Guardian reports that Shell and Centrica have sparked outrage by announcing huge windfalls.

The paper says that Shell posted record earnings of $11.4bn (nearly £10bn) for the three-month period from April to June and promised to give shareholders payouts worth £6.5bn. At the same time, Centrica, the owner of British Gas, reinstated its dividend, handing investors £59m, after reporting operating profits of £1.3bn during the first half of 2022:

More than 8m households – one in three in the UK – will fall into fuel poverty after October’s price cap rise, according to National Energy Action. Fuel poverty is defined as spending more than 10% of household income on energy.

The Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke told PoliticsHome on Thursday he had seen “absolute fear” in the eyes of his constituents and was “not sure” how his own family would pay their bills.

On Thursday, the UK’s three leading debt charities – Citizens Advice, the Money Advice Trust and StepChange – called on Ofgem to improve protections for consumers who owe money to their energy supplier, including cracking down on “harmful” debt collection practices.

Joanna Elson, the head of the Money Advice Trust, which runs National Debtline and Business Debtline, said: “Further targeted support is needed for the many people already unable to afford their energy bills and for those on the lowest incomes, including significantly raising benefits.”

An Ofgem spokesperson said: “Protecting consumers during these very difficult times is our top priority and we are doing all we can to hold suppliers to account on supporting their customers.

“Recently we reviewed all suppliers to make sure they were charging direct debits fairly, have told them to review the highest increases and asked some to make immediate improvements in how they handle them.”

Earlier this week, MPs on the business and energy select committee called for the energy price cap, introduced in 2019 in an effort to combat profiteering, to be replaced by a “social tariff”. This would involve the poorest households receiving discounted energy, with the cost funded either through taxation or spread between more well-off bill payers.

The MPs said millions of people would be plunged into unmanageable debt without further government help.

The government can no longer sit on the sidelines. They need to implement a tax on these excessive profits, abolish VAT on energy, and introduce a social tariff instead of the price cap. After all, these energy companies can afford it.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Reality behind the rhetoric

Somehow, we all knew that Boris Johnson's promises about levelling up were all nonsense. No, actually, they were pretty obviously complete bollocks, but somehow enough people believed them to get him a swath of Tory MPs in red wall seats.

Now, a study by the thinktank IPPR North has unearthed figures that show that the gap in public spending between London and the North has doubled since Boris Johnson came to power, despite his pledge to “level up” the country.

MSN reports that the capital has surged ahead of England’s poorest region in terms of cash handed out by the government – proving that “the money simply didn’t follow the rhetoric”.

They add that the data also shows that, three years after the prime minister stood outside No 10 and vowed to level up the nation, public spending in the North has now fallen behind the average for England.

Will the new Prime Minister do any better? Not on their current economic promises.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Red tape exodus

One of the more interesting aspects of Liz Truss's campaign to be Tory leader is that she appears to be basing her rather dodgy economic agenda on advice from Patrick Minford, an economist whose every prediction about Brexit has proved to be wrong.

Minford is not the only one, of course, who has got things wrong in predictng how Brexit will play out. Nearly everything we were promised by the pro-Brexit campaign has turned out to be nonsense.

That does not stop the brexiteers from trying to blame others when things go wrong of course, whether they argue it is the fault of the French for the queues outside Dover, or the responsibility of the EU for enforcing an agreement these people negotiated, signed up for and campaigned on, despite its obvious flaws. UK Tory Ministers made all the key decisions and they need to start taking responsibility for them.

During the campaign itself, many of us were arguing that the border and import/export controls and red tape would lead to jobs moving abroad. We were told that we were scaremongering. Unfortunately, once more we have been proved right, and the brexiteers, wrong.

One example of that is referred to in today's Independent, who report that a leading British wine agent has decided to leave the UK citing "incredibly complicated" post-Brexit paperwork, leading to a hole in his revenue.

He had calculated that Brexit is adding an average of more than £1.50 to the cost of every bottle of European wine sold to consumers. Following Brexit, lead times from order to delivery of shipments have stretched from 7 to 10 days to as much as 21 days from Spain, 26 days from France, 35 from Germany or Austria and 45 to 70 from Italy:

Mr Lambert said he is moving to Montpellier in France later this week with his family, where he would set up a French company to export back to his own company in Wales. His wine company Daniel Lambert Wines Ltd supplies to Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and nearly 300 other independent retailers.

"In just one week I will finally leave Brexitland for good," he said in a tweet last Friday.

"Let me know if anyone ever finds those sunlit uplands. Not expecting an answer anytime soon."

And so say all of us.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

One rule for us...

It should come as no surprise that the Metropolitian POlice, of all forces, might be practising preferential policing, after all their failings in other areas are numerous and just reinforces the need for root and branch reform. However, at a time when they are under severe public scrutiny, you would think that they might make the effort to practise some equanimity.

The Guardian reports that anger over the Partygate scandal has been reignited after Scotland Yard confirmed that it did not send questionnaires to Boris Johnson before deciding against fining him for attending two Downing Street lockdown gatherings.

The paper says that fines were issued to other attenders at the gatherings in 2020, including one at No 10 on 13 November, where the prime minister gave a leaving speech for his departing director of communications, Lee Cain, and another in the Cabinet Office on 17 December:

Downing Street has previously briefed that Johnson did not receive police questionnaires relating to some lockdown events. But the revelation on Monday is thought to be the first time the Metropolitan police has admitted this, under details released as part of a legal challenge.

The Good Law Project (GLP), a non-profit campaign group that has brought a judicial review over accusations that the Met failed to fully investigate Johnson’s presence at parties, said: “The Met’s actions have raised grave concerns about the deferential way in which they are policing those in power.

“We don’t think the Met’s response is consistent with their legal duty of candour. And we certainly don’t think it’s consistent with what the Met has elsewhere conceded is their public duty to maintain public confidence in policing.”

The group is taking action in concert with Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat peer and former senior police officer.

In a document summarising the Met’s response to the challenge, released by the GLP, the force said it could confirm no questionnaire was sent to Johnson for the two 2020 gatherings. It confirmed it sent one in relation to a gathering held on 14 January 2021.

Johnson received a single £50 fine in April for breaking Covid laws at a birthday party thrown for him in June 2020.

Perhaps those who did receive fines for breaking regulations should be demanding to be treated the same way as the Prime Minister, and ask for a refund.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Is travel chaos built into Brexit?

It has been a summer of absurd claims and counter-claims, and that's just the Tory leadership battle. But the idea that the recent travel chaos in Dover and around the channel tunnel is down to the French not providing enough border guards is one of the most absurd.

The Guardian reports on the view of travel experts that the traffic management system on the M20 – introduced during Brexit – was causing “massive disruption”. They want the government to come up with a long-term solution.

The paper adds that authorities in Dover declared a critical incident as holidaymakers reported waiting as long as 21 hours to reach the ports. Volunteers were drafted in to hand out emergency supplies such as food and water to weary travellers.

This is the first full year of travel since Brexit, with 2021 holidays being stymied due to Covid, and already it is evident that the system cannot cope with the demand.

UK Ministers cannot escape responsibility for this mess. They brought in hard borders, now they have to make them work. Why should the French pick up the bill for UK intransigience, incompetence and sheer bloody-mindedness?

Before Brexit, holidaymakers just breezed through border checks, now that we have 'taken back control' and 'asserted our independence from Europe', there is a price to pay, and that includes the passport stamping that is contributing to these delays

Time for a rethink.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

£120 million lost on Rwanda policy

The Mirror reports that UK taxpayers have already shelled out £120 million to Rwanda over the controversial deportation project - and won't get it back if judges torpedo the scheme.

The High Court is currently weighing up whether the controversial plan - unveiled by Priti Patel earlier this year - is legal, with deportations understood to be on hold until at least September. However, officials from the central African nation have said that the cash is already committed, and much of it already been spent, and so will not be returned.

Furthermore, the UK's high commissioner to Rwanda Joanne Lomas, who has since left her post, last year voiced concerns that asylum seekers had been recruited to fight for the Rwandan armed forces in conflicts abroad:

Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo confirmed that if the scheme were to be scrapped, the UK government would not be able to claim back the cash it has already shelled out.

"There was an initial transfer of £120 million, this has already been paid and we're using these funds to prepare," she said when asked if the payment may be returned.

"It's paid over, it's committed, part of it has been used and we're committing the rest of it to ensure that we're ready to receive the migrants."

Meanwhile Doris Uwicyeza Picard, chief advisor to the Rwandan Minister of Justice, said: "There has been some commitment to ensure that we are prepared to receive them and accommodate them properly."

Ms Picard she was "confident" the programme was legal, but added: "In the eventuality that the court would see fit to deem otherwise, we're committed to continue working and providing African solutions to these problems."

It is understood that future payments would be made to Rwanda once the programme gets underway, but the Home Office today declined to comment on the potential numbers.

Ms Picard said: "The financial commitments are contingent on the arrival of people, of relocated individuals so everything that is in place is in preparation for that."

All in all, this policy is an expensive mess that will do nothing to stop people trafficking.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Tory leadership contest could lead to 'bonfire of rights'

It is not many leadership contests where the candidates engage in a race to the bottom but the Tories seem to manage it every time.The latest is tne pronouncement by the Tory front-runner, Liz Truss that she plans to scrap all remaining EU regulations by the end of 2023.

Now, there is no doubt this will appeal to the Tory backwoodsmen and women who make up the electorate in this particular contest, but the outcome of such a move would be especially devastating for trade between the UK and the EU and, of course, many rights we take for granted.

The Guardian says that a Truss premiership could lead to hundreds of laws covering employment and environmental protections disappearing overnight. This is of course a hugely complex task, with all sorts of unforeseen consequences, not that seems to bother Truss:

After the announcement of Truss’s plans, unions warned of the potential impact on EU-derived workers’ protections. “These are all essential, not a nice-to-have,” said Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress. “Let’s call this out for what it is – ideological posturing at the expense of ordinary working people.”

Dave Penman, head of the FDA union, which represent senior civil servants, said the task had to be seen in the context of plans to get rid of one in five civil service jobs over the next three years.

“If a new prime minister also wants to review thousands of pieces of legislation, then something needs to give,” he said. “Any serious government needs to demonstrate how it will match resources with commitments, otherwise this is just fantasy politics.”

Another complication is the fact that diverging from EU standards in areas such as employment or environmental protections could bring retaliation from Brussels, given the terms of the post-Brexit trade deal, not least in terms of extra checks.

“The more divergence there is in practice, the more checks the EU will want to impose,” said Catherine Barnard, deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank. “The more divergence there is, the more trade friction there will be.”

Barnard, who is professor of EU law at Cambridge University, said there would be concerns about a plan apparently based on the idea that “any retained EU law is bad”.

“Of course, some of it has worked well,” she said, citing the Equalities Act as an example. The Truss campaign said the Equalities Act would not be included in their plans.

Steve Peers, professor of law at the University of Essex and an expert on EU law, said another issue with a guillotine-like end to any remaining laws would be if some covered taxation. Treasury officials have called for EU-based tax laws to be exempt from such plans.

While it remained unclear what would happen at the end of 2023, Peers said, there was a risk the exercise ended as “a bonfire of rights” rather than Truss’s promised bonfire of red tape.

“It is a massive undertaking, and you wonder how thoroughly it will be done,” he said. “It does seem to prioritise ideology over pragmatism.

“I wonder if reviewing what I think would be 2,000 laws in 15 months is the right priority during a cost of living crisis, with lots of other things going on. The UK would have voted for most of them anyway. We have already removed hundreds that don’t work since we’ve left the EU, or that the government wanted to change.”

Who would have thought we could get a successor Prime Minister, who was actually worse than Boris Johnson?

Friday, July 22, 2022

The growing cost of divorce that exposes the Brexit lies

It may be a fading memory, but nobody is going to allow Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers to forget that they plastered on the side of a bus how our health service would benefit to the tune of £350m a week from us leaving the European Union. This was their wildly inaccuarate calculation based on the gross payments we were making into EU coffers at the time. For some reason nobody on their side mentioned the money that was flowing back into the UK, the economic benefits of membership and the financial settlement that was needed to finally sever us from our treaty obligations.

That is because overshadowing all those arrangements was an eye-watering bill that would neutralise any savings for years to come. Previously, we had been paying in to enjoy the massive benefits of being in the World's largest free-trade zone, with all the jobs and wealth attached to that. Now we are paying to be excluded from those benefits, and are losing jobs and trade as a result. Way to go, Boris. But it gets worse.

The Independent reports that the Brexit divorce bill negotiated by Boris Johnson has increased by nearly £10bn compared to the official estimate when the UK left the EU. A statement from chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke, says the bill is now £42.5bn, which “shows an increase against the original range”. That is roughly 2.5 times the entire annual udget of the Welsh Government.

The paper adds that when Britain left the EU in January 2020 the Office for Budget Responsibility put the figure at £32.9bn, meaning the cost of the financial settlement has soared by nearly £10bn:

In the statement, the minister insisted that the figure should be compared to the “original range” of £35-39bn, which would make for a smaller but still substantial increase of around £4bn. But the timing of the Treasury’s statement at the start of the summer recess means MPs will be unable to hold ministers to account for the increase in the Commons, because it will not be sitting.

The Treasury says the increase is “primarily due to the most recent valuation of the UK’s obligation under Article 142 for EU pensions”.

The government pledged to pay its share of EU official pensions as a condition for getting a withdrawal agreement and avoiding a no-deal Brexit.

The increase in these payments is related to higher inflation, which has soared to record levels in recent months.

The Treasury also said in the statement that it does not plan to release further estimates of the bill, even if it increases further – and that the actual costs will be buried in departmental small print.

“As all payments will be made from departmental accounts, HM Treasury do not plan to replicate or consolidate financial reporting on the TCA in future editions of the statement,” the minister said.

“Nor do we intend to report annually our revised estimate of liabilities expected under the TCA, because actual costs will, in future years, appear in the departmental resource accounts.”

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesperson, said: “Boris Johnson’s terrible deal, backed by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, is costing British taxpayers billions of pounds. This is the price of years of Conservative chaos and neglect.

“Combined with the government’s botched trade agreements, they are leaving British farmers and businesses wrapped in red tape – unable to compete.

Perhaps we need a new bus.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Another Tory government failure

The Guardian reports that scientists, vets and naturalists are calling for a moratorium on the badger cull in the light of evidence that they say shows nine years of killing badgers has failed to reduce bovine TB in cattle:

The culling of legally protected badgers to reduce cattle TB enters its 10th season this summer, despite the publication of a scientific paper in the journal Veterinary Record earlier this year which concluded that culling had no significant impact on bTB in cattle herds. The paper sparked a row over its methodology, which the government says was flawed, but its supporters say it shows the practice should be ended.

In an open letter to the prime minister and the environment secretary, experts including Jane Goodall, Prof Andrew Knight and Prof Ranald Munro, who served on the government’s independent scientific panel examining the efficacy and humaneness of culling, warned that new culling licences could target 25,000 badgers in addition to more than 175,000 killed under licence since the controversial policy began in 2013.

Although the government pledged in 2020 to phase out badger culling in favour of cattle and badger vaccination, better cattle TB tests and enhanced biosecurity measures on farms, new licences issued this summer will continue to see badgers shot dead until 2025.

The paper says that the peer-reviewed Vet Record paper by the independent ecologist Tom Langton and the vets Iain McGill and Mark Jones analysed government data on bovine TB in cattle herds within the “high risk” area of England over 2010-2020 and found that in nine out 10 counties, bTB incidence peaked and began to fall before badger culling commenced.

In contrast, DEFRA's own analysis was not peer-reviewed, and, as they subsequently admitted, was based on “incorrect calculations”. Isn't it about time they accepted that their policy of mass slaughter of a protected species is flawed and ineffective, instead of doubling down like this?

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The ongoing cost of government failure during the pandemic

The Mirror reports that MPs have been warned that unresolved disputes between the Government and suppliers of poor-quality PPE could cost the taxpayer £2.7 billion.

The paper says that tDepartment of Health's "significant failings" in handling PPE contracts during the pandemic have also led to a surplus of four billion unneeded items, some of which will be burned:

A new report by the Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises Government spending, criticised the department for taking little action against potentially fraudulent suppliers.

This was despite an estimated 5% of PPE expenditure involving fraud.

The MPs claimed the DHSC was paralysed from acting against suppliers "who may have made excessive profits" while providing substandard equipment because it failed to carry out sufficient checks before agreeing some contracts.

Progress on resolving disputes on 176 contracts worth up to £2.7 billion is slow, with no cases being moved into the litigation stage of the commercial dispute process.

PAC chairwoman Dame Meg Hillier said: "The departure from normal approaches to due diligence, record keeping, decision making and accountability in relation to PPE contracts puts a stain on the UK's response to the pandemic.

"Even if you accept that some proper procedure will have to slip in times of crisis, the complete collapse of some of the most well-established civil service practices beggars belief. The taxpayer will be paying for these decisions for years to come."

The MPs previously said the Department lost 75% of the £12 billion it spent on PPE in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic to "obscenely inflated prices" and faulty kit.

Who says there is no magic money tree?

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Has two decades of devolution failed Welsh children?

A new analysis by the Education Policy Institute suggests that pupils from poorer backgrounds in Wales are about two years behind their peers. As the BBC reports, by the time they sit their GCSEs, poorer pupils are on average 22 to 23 months behind, with those identified as long-term poor up to 29 months behind.

They add that the figures are based on results from three years ago but researchers say pupils have almost certainly fallen further behind over the Covid pandemic:

The gap is at its highest - between 25 and 28 months - in Wrexham, Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Pembrokeshire and Neath Port Talbot.

Cardiff, Swansea and Ceredigion were among the areas where it is narrower, though it still amounts to 17 to 20 months.

Researchers compared data for Wales with England where more disadvantaged pupils were around 18 months behind classmates.

As the BBC's Education and Family Correspondent, Bethan Lewis says, this report will make uncomfortable reading for a government which has talked a lot about the priority it places on closing the attainment gap. There's been very little progress over a decade despite the millions invested in grants and other initiatives.

OF course the pupil development grant, introduced in Wales by the Welsh Liberal Democrats was set up to tackle precisely this problem. But it's monetary value has been allowed to fall back in real terms, and there is now a clear need to better focus it, to ensure that it is achieving the expected outcomes.

That may involve providing additional resources so as to intervene in a child's education at a much earlier age, and being stricter in the way schools spend the money, but also, as the headteacher of Treorchy Comprehensive School says, we have to recognise that this is a complex situation, and look at evidence elsewhere as to how we can improve the wellbeing and needs of a young person and their families.

We have had more than two decades of devolution in Wales, where we have been able to dictate our own policies on a wide range of issues. And yet we are still one of the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom, and that is working its way through into poorer health outcomes and lower educational achievement.

This is a huge wake-up call for the Welsh Government. They need to carry out a root and branch review of the way they run Wales, in an effort to put things right. If they fail to do even that, then somebody else must be tasked to do the job.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Rising prices and fewer British goods on the shelves

The Independent reports that Brexit has led to a decline in crops and fewer home-grown products on the shelves of Britain’s supermarkets.

They say that Farmers in Kent have told a visiting group of MPs that it has become easier to import some fruits than harvest them because of strict limits on the number of seasonal workers from the EU:

Winterwood Farms, an agricultural giant based in the county, said its UK farms had been forced to leave 8 per cent of their fruit crop unharvested and would be planting less in future.

Stephen Taylor, managing director of Winterwood in Maidstone, said the government’s advice to replace lost EU labour with British workers and robots showed how “out of touch” ministers had become.

“The flow of people coming from Europe to work for the summer has declined every year since Brexit, particularly the last two summers, and as a direct result we are now growing less and importing more,” he said.

Calling for more flexible seasonal work visas, he added: “The government could still allow the same people to carry out the harvest – but it has inexplicably decided to choke the industry instead.”

Labour MP Hilary Benn led a delegation of MPs and industry chiefs to visit Winterwood’s farms in Kent to see the difficulties they are facing with labour shortages.

They were told the problem had hit the whole farming sector – resulting in less fresh, more expensive imported fruit in British supermarkets to cover the shortfall.

The UK Trade and Business Commission delegation, which is examining the impact of Brexit, also heard that British farmers’ off-season trade had also been badly hit.

Farmers could previously sell any surplus from overseas operations to EU markets, but new Brexit red tape means they must now pay to dispose of this fruit.

Nobody should say, they were not warned.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Still playing hooky

When he said he was going to be a caretaker Prime Minister, surely we could expect that he would do the bare minimum. However, that is not how Boris Johnson sees his role, and frankly, why should we expect anything different?

The Guardian reports that the Prime Minister is omce more “missing in action” after failing to attend a Cobra meeting to discuss the national heatwave emergency following predictions that thousands could die in the coming days:

As the threat to life from the impending heatwave continues to crystallise, the prime minister chose to skip the meeting on Saturday. He instead stayed at his Chequers country retreat, where he is due to hold a thank you party for supporters on Sunday.

Britain is bracing itself for record temperatures, potentially as high as 40C on Monday. The threat has already prompted some school closures, warnings of a “nightmare” in the NHS and instructions for rail passengers not to travel unless absolutely essential.

On Friday, the Met Office issued its first-ever red alert warning for extreme heat – signifying a risk of “serious illness or danger to life”, even for healthy people. The UK Health Security Agency’s chief scientific officer, Isabel Oliver, yesterday pointed out that during a significantly cooler heatwave last year, 1,600 people died.

The government’s response was led by Cabinet Office minister Kit Malthouse, who chaired the Cobra meeting in Johnson’s absence, prompting Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner to accuse the prime minister of going “missing in action”.

“The public will have no confidence in this zombie Conservative government responding swiftly and decisively to this national emergency as this disgraced prime minister prepares to party while Britain boils,” she said.

Downing Street insiders said it was not unusual for senior ministers other than the prime minister to chair a Cobra meeting.

Of course, this has been the problem with Johnson from the start, he wants to glory, but is not prepared to do the work.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Treasury profiting from cost of living crisis

Anybody who thinks that the government is in any way sympathetic to the position of the hundreds of thousand families who are struggling to afford energy costs, has only to look at the position of HM Treasury.

The Mirror reports that the current surge in energy prices is set to rake in an extra £2.6billion for the Government, while if the cap on bills rockets in October to a predicted £3,285 a year, it would raise £4.22bn. 

This is because bills are subject to 5% VAT, meaning that the Government will be taking its cut of profiteering by energy companies.

When combined with the increase in National Insurance and the refusal to allow public sector wages to keep pace with inflation, it becomes clear that the government and its ministers are part of the problem.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Missing in action

When Boris Johnson announced that there wuld be no new government initiatives in the downtime between his decapitation and the day he leaves to make a fortune on the US lecture circuit, nobody envisaged that he actually meant the whole cabinet would be going on holiday or, at the very least, go missing in action.

Is it the case that cabinet ministers can only focus on one thing at a time, and that at this moment, that is the Tory leadership contest? Because for many MPs that appears to be the case. 

The Guardian reports that signs that Boris Johnson’s government could be effectively grinding to a halt are increasing after another senior minister pulled out of a parliamentary scrutiny session and key proposals to reform gambling laws were postponed again.

They say that a day after Priti Patel, the home secretary, withdrew from a scheduled appearance before a Commons committee, Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, said he could not attend a meeting of the cross-party joint committee on human rights next Wednesday, as planned:

Raab was due to have been quizzed by the committee of MPs and peers about his so-far vague proposals for a British bill of rights, which would seek to reduce the role of the European court of human rights in overseeing British cases.

Joanna Cherry, the Scottish National party MP who chairs the committee, wrote to Raab, who is also the deputy prime minister, saying members were “extremely disappointed” at his decision.

“Whilst we understand that there are pressures that come with holding the dual roles of lord chancellor and deputy prime minister, accountability to parliament should take priority,” she wrote.

“This date has been in our diaries and yours for some time. It is not clear why, at such short notice, other matters should take priority.”

Patel, the home secretary, had been scheduled to update MPs on the Commons home affairs committee on Wednesday morning about policies including progress on deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. But late on Tuesday, Patel said she could not attend because of “recent changes in government”, without apparent elaboration.

Also on Wednesday, it emerged that the long-running online safety bill had been dropped amid confusion during the continuing Conservative leadership race.

While ministers insisted this was because of a lack of parliamentary time due to Labour’s wish for a vote of confidence in the government on Monday, it has been pushed to the autumn over concerns whoever succeeds Johnson in September might have different views on the bill.

It has now emerged that proposals to reform gambling laws have been postponed for a fourth time, after Johnson’s advisers concluded they could not be published until a new leader is in place.

The government really has given up governing.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

The unspoken crisis in the Tory Leadership race

The most striking part of the current Tory leadership contest is how disconneected the candidates are from the concerns of ordinary voters. That is partly the result of them speaking to a select electorate, and a privileged one at that, but it does not bode well for us, whoever ends up in 10 Downing Street. The Independent illustrates this with a specific example.

They quote Martin Lewis, founder of MoneysavingExpert.com, who says Tory leadership candidates are “ignoring” the winter fuel crisis and should set out how they would help families and businesses. He warned that the energy crisis was “potentially more dangerous to lives than the pandemic” and the country could face “cataclysmic” problems this winter:

The consumer expert condemned the MPs running in the Tory leadership contest for their “deafening silence” on how they would tackle the energy crisis on becoming prime minister in the autumn.

Many of the candidates in the race to replace Boris Johnson in Number 10 have promised to cut fuel duty if elected, however, they are yet to set out a detailed plan of how they would tackle the cost of living crisis.

Now, more than 40 charities and campaign groups including Oxfam, Save the Children and Fuel Poverty Action have written to each candidate calling on them to detail how they would “keep people safe and warm this winter”.

They are concerned key decisions on the cost of living crisis will be delayed until the new leader is elected in the autumn after the prime minister said any new policies must wait until his successor is in place.

The groups are calling for the leadership hopefuls to draw up detailed policies as soon as possible so they can be implemented once they are elected.

In their letter, they warned the country is “headed into a potentially catastrophic winter”.

They wrote: “In eleven weeks’ time, more than a third of households - many millions of British families - may not be able to afford to heat their homes.

“Meanwhile, earlier this year, 2.3 million families on low income were going without enough food and were unable to keep their homes warm.

“In the words of Martin Lewis last week: ’millions of households will be forced into poverty unless we act. This is a genuine, urgent emergency’.”

Will this call to action wake up the remaining six candidates for Prime Minister. I think that is unlikely.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Welsh Government launch consultation on council tax reform

The long-awaited Welsh Government consultation on reforming council tax has been launched and it is pretty much as expected. As Wales on line reports, the proposal is for all 1.5m properties in Wales to be revalued, new bands created and new tax rates for each band set.

They add that options are also being discussed for new bands to be added at the top and the bottom and rolling revaluation cycles introduced. Discounts, exemptions and premiums would all be overhauled along with the Council Tax Reduction Scheme which provides support to low-income households.

The indication is that higher value properties will pay more, offsetting reductions in bills for those living in less valuable homes. That is very much in line with Professor Gerry Holtham's report for the IWA back in 2014, which I wrote about here.

He argued that property values, as assessed for council tax purposes are increasing at a much slower rate than house prices, so that the average council tax on the lowest band, whose properties are worth up to £44,000 amounts to nearly 1.9% of the value of the property. For properties worth over £424,000, the tax is just over 0.5% of capital value:

The solution proposed by the paper is not to throw out the tax altogether but to reform it so as to ‘smooth out the indexation’ and to consider introducing additional tax bands. Gerry Holtham argues that this would lead to gradual change and do away with the need for revaluation.

He argues that a fairer way to levy the tax would be to make it a flat rate plus a proportion of the value of the property, less a property allowance. That would yield similar revenue to the current tax where everybody would end up paying a fraction over 1% of the band value. In other words the tax would be rebalanced so that those in the most expensive properties would pay more.

He says that taxpayers in band D would pay a little more than a pound a week more, whilst those in band A would see their bills fall dramatically. This would lead to a fall in the cost of Council Tax benefit from £242m to just over £190m.

Gerry Holtham suggests that the increase in taxation for those in the higher bands could be ameliorated by other measures. These include removing the single occupant discount and increasing the tax on second homes, a measure already being proposed in the housing bill. In Gwynedd, 10% of the housing stock consists of second homes.

Of course we will have to see what comes out of this consultation in terms of final proposals. Contrary to the Holtham proposal, regular revaluations are being considered, and of course any change that leads to people paying more is bound to create an out-cry. Maybe Welsh Ministers will do the right thing for once, perhaps they will bottle it. We will see.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Race for the bottom

If there is one thing that is becoming immediately apparent about this very, very crowded Tory leadership race, we are going to end up much where we started, policy-wise, albeit with a more reliable and possibly better equipped Prime Minister, assuming that we don't get any of the really bonkers Boris-acolytes, of course.

So far all the candidates have said they are in favour of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda and the watering down of our human rights, they all want to cut taxes for businesses and their rich pals, just disagreeing on the timing, and they all want to continue undermining the Good Friday agreement by rewriting the Northern Ireland Protocol.

And now, according to the Independent, a group of net zero sceptics on the Tory back benches are hoping to move Boris Johnson’s would-be successors away from green policies.

They say that senior Tory MP Steve Baker – founder of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of backbenchers – has suggested that he would push for the next PM to dismantle the government’s climate agenda:

Some in the party fear top contenders such as Nadhim Zahawi and Liz Truss could be pressured into prioritising tax cuts over investment in renewable energy, as well as committing to an expansion of oil and gas production.

Tory peer Zac Goldsmith, who has attacked Rishi Sunak’s environmental record, told The Independent it would be better to have a Labour government than a leader who “deprioritises” action on net zero.

Lord Goldsmith added: “It would be a catastrophic error for Conservatives to select a candidate who deprioritises these issues, but if they do, then we can only hope voters replace the party at the available election.”

And this is just the start of the race. Once we are down to the last two and the candidates are starting to woo the right-wing backwoodsmen who make up the Tory rank and file, we could end up with a real race to the bottom. Goodness knows what sort of reactionaries policies the winner will end up committed to.

Friday, July 08, 2022

The life and lies of Boris Johnson

With thanks to the Led by Donkeys website

Thursday, July 07, 2022

So what now?

The Whitehall farce that has unfolded over the last 24 hours is an embarrassment not just for the Tory party but for the whole country. When our own Prime Minister, with a history of lying and rule-breaking, effectively barricades himself in to 10 Downing Street, in defiance of his own Ministers, and refuses to budge, then we have to question the whole basis of our constitution.

The very idea being put about by Johnson and his allies that he had a mandate, as if we have a presidential system, just underlines how our whole democracy is being subverted by personality cults and leader-centred politicians. Prime Ministers are not directly elected by voters, and no political party has secured the majority of votes cast since 1950. The idea that any government has a mandate for anything is nonsense.

So where do we go from here? Johnson wants to cling on as a dead-duck PM until his successor is elected, roughly around August/September this year. But are there any ministers left who will work with him to ensure we have a viable government in that period? And then there is a question of who would replace Johnson?

I am not one of those who believe that there are no obvious contenders. Putting aside the wild-eyed loyalists like Dominic Raab, Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees Mogg and Priti Patel (who it is hoped any successor will banish from government permanently), there are a number of Ministers or former Ministers who are capable of doing the job. The problem is of course the Tory Party membership.

Getting one of the more sensible candidates past Tory members is going to be difficult. If we are to avoid another idiot taking up residence in 10 Downning Street, then we are going to have to rely on MPs to present members with two sensible candidates to choose between in the first place. I am not holding my breath.

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Adding to the cost of a failing Brexit

It isn't just the fact that the extra £360m a week for the NHS was a lie, but that leaving the EU is actually costing us more than if we had stayed in.

The Guardian reports that at least £450m of taxpayers’ money has been spent on facilities to handle post-Brexit checks, which have now been delayed and may never happen.

The paper says that a new hi-tech border control post in POrtsmouth, built over the past 18 months at a cost of £25m, a cost shared by the taxpayer and the port’s owner, Portsmouth city council, should be in its inaugural week of use, handling post-Brexit checks on imports of animal, plant and forestry products arriving from the EU.

However, the building stands empty and silent, following the government’s decision in April to delay, probably for good, the introduction of physical inspections of fresh meat, fruit, vegetables and plants from the EU:

The facility was completed before the government’s previous and much-delayed start date of 1 July for the new border measures.

The government is now working on a new operating model for imports – due to be published in the autumn and come into effect at the end of 2023 – following the announcement by the Brexit opportunities minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, at the end of April that all checks and paperwork at the border would be digitised.

The decision has left ports such as Portsmouth counting the cost and wondering what to do with their impressive but redundant multimillion-pound white elephants.

The British Ports Association (BPA), a lobby group for the industry, calculates that at least £450m of taxpayers’ money has been spent on these now mostly unwanted new border control facilities.

This includes the £300m spent on buildings at ports, as well as an estimated £250m spent by the government on building 10 inland border facilities, in places such as Dover and Holyhead where there is not space for a checkpoint next to the terminal. These buildings will be difficult to repurpose.

And so the mishandling of this so-called easy transition continues, with good money being thrown after bad, at a time when the health service could do with every penny.

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Number Ten caught out in a lie

The list of Boris Johnson's lies and evasions is almost as long as the list of aides, Ministers and MPs who are prepared to go on the record in supporting and enabling him, and once again, it seems, the latest spin has been found out to be untrue.

The Guardian reports that the Prime Minister's claim that he was not aware of prior specific allegations against Chris Pincher is falling apart, after a former top civil servant wrote a formal letter to allege that Downing Street’s version of events was untrue.

The paper says that Simon McDonald, who had been the most senior official in the Foreign Office and is now a crossbench peer, told the parliamentary standards commissioner that the prime minister was briefed in person about a 2019 complaint about alleged groping by the former Tory deputy chief whip.

Despite this, Dominic Raab, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, is still casting doubt on whether Johnson was briefed or not:

McDonald’s letter, sent to Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, and tweeted on Tuesday morning, appears to demolish the insistence of No 10 spokespeople and a series of ministers that Johnson was not aware of any “specific” allegations against Pincher before last week.

On Monday, Johnson’s official spokesman amended this to argue that the prime minister had been aware of allegations, but that these were “either resolved or did not proceed to a formal complaint”.

In a scathing letter, McDonald, a long-time senior diplomat who was permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office from 2015 to 2020 and became a peer in 2021, made it clear he believed this was also untrue.

In the summer of 2019, shortly after Pincher became a Foreign Office minister, McDonald wrote, a group of officials complained about his behaviour, McDonald said, saying the claims were “similar” to those that emerged last week. An investigation upheld the complaint and Pincher apologised, he added.

It was, McDonald wrote, “not true” for No 10 to either claim Johnson knew about no earlier complaints, or the amended line about the only complaint he knew about being unsubstantiated.

“Mr Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation,” the letter said. “There was a ‘formal complaint’. Allegations were ‘resolved’ only in the sense that the investigation was completed; Mr Pincher was not exonerated. To characterise the allegations as ‘unsubstantiated’ is therefore wrong.”

He added: “I am aware that is unusual to write to you and simultaneously publicise the letter. I am conscious of the duty owed to the target of an investigation but I act out of of my duty towards the victims.

“Mr Pincher deceived me and others in 2019. He cannot be allowed to use the confidentiality of the process three years ago to pursue his predatory behaviour in other contexts.”

Just another day in the Number 10 kindergarten, I suppose.

Monday, July 04, 2022

Metropolitan Police crime figures under-report rape and violence

Just how bad the Metropolitan Police has become is starkly apparent by this report in The Times, which alleges that the force has been substantially under-recording crimes including rape, stalking and violence compared with other big police forces, raising concerns about the potential manipulation of statistics.

The paper says that the Met is recording nearly half as many rapes, one third the number of stalking offences and hundreds fewer violent incidents than West Midlands police, one of its closest counterparts, raising serious concerns about its performance, including its ability to prevent and tackle crime. The force is also recording far fewer serious offences per head of population than areas such as Manchester and Leeds:

The analysis by The Times has found that the Met is consistently recording significantly lower rates of serious crime per head of population compared with other areas.

It recorded 77 rapes per 100,000 people in the 12 months to March, nearly half the 131 in the West Midlands and substantially lower than the 113 and 116 in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire respectively. In the year to March last year the Met recorded 83 rapes per 100,000 people compared with 123 in the West Midlands, 120 in Greater Manchester and 134 in West Yorkshire.

There was a clear difference in the recording of other sexual offences. In 2021-22 the Met has recorded fewer overall than the other forces and two thirds the number recorded by Greater Manchester — 134 compared with 192.

There were substantial anomalies in the recording of harassment and stalking. In the year to March, West Midlands and West Yorkshire police recorded 1,533 and 1,673 offences per 100,000 people, nearly three times the Met’s 573 offences.

The Met is also recording fewer violence with injury offences. It recorded 642 per 100,000 in the year to March and 731 in 2020-21. West Midlands recorded 1,052 in 2021-22 and 1,131 in 2020-21, while both Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire recorded hundreds more than the Met.

From 2014 to 2017 crime recording rates for the Met were higher or comparable with the other three forces. In 2020-21 and 20021-22 the Met’s recording has been consistently lower.

Statistics experts say that there could be other explanations. Crime recording rules are complicated and regularly change, so it is possible that other forces are inflating their figures, rather than the Met under-recording.

The inspectorate of constabulary also expressed concern about officer inexperience, which raises the possibility that newer officers do not understand the rules and are not applying them properly.

There are concerns about the way that all forces deal with sexual offences, not just the Met, but these figures highlight how much work London's police force needs to do to both win back public confidence and to get its own house in order.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

Holding Boris Johnson's promises to account

There is not enough work carried out in the UK Parliament, or indeed any of the devolved Parliaments in holding administartions to account for their manifesto promises. This is despite the fact that Ministers will oftne gloss over or redefine their commitments in an effort to avoid being branded a failure. Often the problem is one of over-promising or not doing the homework necessary to ensure that the commitment is deliverable. In Boris Johnson's case it is that he believes that he can get away with anything, a belief that has so far served him well.

It is reassuring therefore to read in the Guardian that the government’s official spending watchdog is to launch an inquiry into Boris Johnson’s claim that 40 new hospitals will be built in England by 2030, as concerns grow in Whitehall that the pledge is unaffordable and has been greatly oversold to the public.

The paper says that in a move that could prove hugely embarrassing for the prime minister, the independent National Audit Office (NAO) has decided to conduct a “value for money review” into the entire scheme, which was a cornerstone of the Conservative party’s 2019 general election manifesto:

The NAO has also made clear that it is concerned at how the government still maintains that it will build 40 entirely new hospitals, when in reality many will merely be extensions or refurbishments of existing ones.

In a letter to the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, who had raised questions about delays and the resulting rising costs of the scheme with the NAO, its top official – Gareth Davies, the comptroller and auditor general – said he was already preparing a full value for money review.

Davies also said that he had taken “particular” note of the “implications of delay for increasing costs at this time of high inflation and the matter of whether all projects truly meet the classification of ‘new hospitals’”. Davies said he would be reporting back in 2023.

This inquiry has the potential to raise further questions about honesty and standards inside the Johnson government following the long-drawn-out Partygate controversy and a series of recent sex scandals involving male Conservative MPs. I can't wait for the report.

Saturday, July 02, 2022

Striking a deal with the SNP

In a negotiation, never commit yourself to a position publicly, it only weakens your hand. 

Now, I don't know whether Keir Starmer thinks he has what it takes to secure an overall majority at the next election, but a combination of inadequate polling leads, uninspiring leadership and unfavourable boundary changes makes the odds against him doing so pretty steep. 

The Labour leader may well have to work with other parties, either formally or on a confidence and supply basis. That means he will need the third largest block of MPs in the Commons - the SNP.

That Starmer now feels it necessary to distance himself from Nicola Sturgeon's party, effectively ruling out, once and for all, any sort of arrangement, does not strengthen his hand, it weakens it considerably. It is perhaps, a gamble too far. It also seems to be an rather extreme position for a risk-adverse party leader, like Starmer, to take.

The Guardian reports that the Labour leader has made it explicit that his party would go into minority government rather than enter talks with nationalists, in a new effort to spike Conservative attacks on a “coalition of chaos”. He believes that such a position would effectively dare the SNP to vote down a Labour Queen’s speech and bear responsibility for bringing down a Labour prime minister and enabling another Tory administration.

Personally, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the SNP voted down, or at least abstained on a Queen's Speech that does not include an independence referendum. I also think they would get away with such a move in Scotland as well, leaving Starmer high and dry, and back in opposition.

He is taking this hard line of course, partly to mollify the Scottish branch of Labour, who have preferred to put Tories into positions of power on local councils rather than give succour to the SNP, and partly to avoid losing support in England over a possible alliance that would see Scotland leave the UK. It is a defensive position, that is not likely to win a single extra vote anywhere.

Would Starmer not be better developing policy positions and a vision that might attract voters instead?

Friday, July 01, 2022

No surprise as Brexit leads to fall in exports

The Guardian reports that evidence of the negative impact of Brexit on the UK’s trade with the European Union is starting to emerge with EU data showing that exports to the bloc declined by nearly 14% in 2021 compared with 2020.

The paper quotes Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president and Brexit negotiator, who said that even with the impact of the pandemic being taken into account, the increase in red tape since the transition period ended in January 2021 has taken its toll on trade in goods and services with the UK:

“One result of Brexit was the return of a customs border between the EU and Great Britain. This means paperwork for virtually every product shipping between our markets. It means checks on thousands of goods being carried out on a daily basis.

“Brexit has increased red tape, not decreased it. It is no longer as frictionless and dynamic as before. This holds true for both goods and services,” he said.

The UK’s decision to choose a hard Brexit with the departure from the single market resulted in the loss of four freedoms to trade – in labour, capital, goods and services.

Eurostat figures put imports to the EU from the UK falling from €169bn (£144bn) in 2020 to €146bn in 2021 – a drop of 13.6%.

Eurostat figures show services, also impacted by Brexit, fell by 7% in 2021 compared with 2019. This category includes everything from financial services to professional services such as architecture, marketing and accounting.

The figures don't lie, and yet none of this is a surprise. It is entirely predictable that if you put up trade barriers, increase the amount of red tape and make it more difficult for goods to be sold abroad, then the economy will suffer. If we really are going to make Brexit work, as the government say, then they need to find ways around this.

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