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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Tories count the cost of nurturing their blue wall seats

When Rishi Sunak made the decision to scrap house building targets in the face of a rebellion from backbench MPs, he did so in the knowledge that many apparently safe Tory seats in the so-called blue wall, were under threat from a vocal electorate, keen to preserve green spaces and protect their own property values.

As the Independent reports, the change made a centrally determined target to build 300,000 homes a year a “starting point” or “goal”. Councils can propose building fewer homes if they faced “genuine constraints” or would have to build at a density that would “significantly change the character” of their area.

Unfortunately, the new policy has a number of downsides. Chief amongst them is that it perpetuates the housing crisis in the overheated economy of London and the South East of England, effectively pricing many thousands out of possible home ownership, and reducing the number of affordable and social homes for rent.

Sunak may consider that a small price to pay if it keeps his backbenchers happy and helps his party hold onto endangered seats, but there is another downside for the Tories, donations from developers have dried up.

The Independent says that property developers that have donated millions of pounds to the Conservative Party are “on strike” because they say that the party is blocking new house building.

The paper quotes the Home Builders Federation, who claim that housebuilding in England is set to fall to the lowest level since the second world war. It has accused the government of having “anti-development and anti-business” policies which threaten to dramatically slow development:

Rob Boughton, who runs one of the biggest developers in the southeast, Thakeham, said MPs should be “ashamed” for protecting “a vocal minority at the cost of so many”. Mr Boughton, whose company has donated nearly £1million to the party since 2017, wrote on LinkedIn: “What happened to creating opportunity? These small-minded, selfish people just don’t get it.”

In another post, he said: “What hope do the aspiring [first-time buyers] have? Do they care about 20 to 45-year-olds in this country or not?”

And the founder of one of the country’s biggest housebuilders Redrow described the government as “anti-housebuilding”. In an interview with industry publication Building, Steve Morgan, who has given more than £1.25million to the Conservatives, said: “It’s almost like the government wants to destroy the industry.”

The pair last donated to the Conservatives last October. Another Tory source told The Times: “They [the developer donors] are on strike. And is it any surprise? What a way to spit in their f***ing face.”

It seems that Sunak can't win whatever he does.

Friday, May 26, 2023

The impact of Brexit on food prices

The Independent reports that new research has found that Brexit red tape has cost each household £250 in higher food bills alone since the UK left the EU.

The paper says that the analysis suggests that food price rises would have been 8 percentage points lower – nearly a third – without Brexit, at 17 per cent, rather than the actual rise of almost 25 per cent:

Annual food price inflation in the UK is near historic highs, with some basic goods rising by up to 46 per cent in a year, official figures show, exacerbating the cost-of-living crisis.

Non-tariff barriers in force since Brexit include customs checks, rules-of-origin requirements and health paperwork for animals and plants.

A previous version of paper, Non-tariff barriers and consumer prices: evidence from Brexit, found that leaving the European Union on 31 January 2020 added an average of £210 to household food bills over the two years to the end of 2021. Now that figure has risen further.

Between January last year and March this year, the price of food products that were more exposed to Brexit because the UK imported them in high volumes from the EU before the referendum increased by about 3.5 percentage points more than those that were not, the research found.

The report authors blame these changes entirely on products with high non-tariff barriers.

Prices of products such as meat and cheese imported from the EU have increased by about 10 percentage points more than similar products not exposed to Brexit since January 2021, when the trade and cooperation (TCA) agreement began, the study says.

The price rises of products more exposed to Brexit are not linked to other factors such as Covid lockdowns or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The fact that the results are driven entirely by products with high non-tariff barriers imported from the EU offers strong evidence that Brexit is the driving force behind these effects,” the researchers say.

EU supporters argue food inflation will become even worse when the government introduces new border checks in October.

The checks will mean health certification on imports from the EU of medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin.

With a new study by the Centre for European Reform finding that Brexit has cost the UK £33bn in lost trade and investment, it is little wonder that most people think the whole concept is a disaster.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A chequered history?

I just love this headline from the Guardian. The phrase 'Undisclosed Covid-era Johnson events occurred at both Chequers and Downing Street' just seems to sum up Boris Johnson's premiership.

And nobody should be surprised at the contents of the article, in which the paper says that about a dozen previously undisclosed gatherings at both Chequers and Downing Street, allegedly held during Covid, have been referred to the police by civil servants. Has the establishment finally tired of Johnson's shenanigans and decided to sell him out completely? It certainly looks that way.

The report says that Government sources have suggested that approximately 12 potentially illegal events formed the basis of a dossier handed over to two police forces last week, adding that while it was initially thought they were all held at the prime minister’s Buckinghamshire grace-and-favour mansion Chequers, insiders said they also took place in No 10:

They were said to include events which did not form part of the Met police’s investigation last year, nor the Whitehall inquiry led by then-senior civil servant Sue Gray.

After Johnson’s allies made clear their fury at the situation, No 10 stressed Rishi Sunak had no involvement in the decision to hand over the former prime minister’s pandemic diaries.

“We have not seen the information or material in question,” said Sunak’s official spokesperson on Wednesday, adding that ministers had “no involvement in this process and were only made aware after the police had been contacted”.

Police were contacted on 16 May about the issue, according to the Cabinet Office. Thames Valley police said they received a report about “potential breaches” of Covid rules on 18 May, while Scotland Yard said the bundle was passed to it the following day.

Sunak found out the police had been informed at some point between 19 May and the facts becoming public on 23 May, No 10 said, without offering a specific date.

Downing Street refused to say whether Johnson would lose the Conservative whip should he be charged with further lockdown breaches, with Sunak’s press secretary saying No 10 would not respond to questions about the “hypothetical” scenario.

However, they were much more categorical that Sunak had not attended the events in contention at Chequers. Asked whether the then chancellor broke Covid rules there, the press secretary said: “No, definitely not.” They also rejected suggestions Johnson was the victim of a politically motivated stitch up.

Just as compelling is Johnson's reaction to these latest revelations. The paper say that his allies have issued a dramatic warning to Sunak, saying they would meet on Wednesday to “consider options” about how to force the government to stop “witch-hunts”:

They upped the ante on the already febrile Tory benches by calling the decision to hand over evidence of gatherings at Chequers during Covid the “final straw”. Johnson’s supporters accused Cabinet Office ministers of having signed off the decision to pass on the former prime minister’s diaries to police.

The prospect of a Tory civil war beckons. I'll just get my popcorn.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Behind the headline figures

It seems rather bizarre to be celebrating inflation at 8.7%, but at least it is no longer in double figures. The New Statesman however, sounds a cautionary note. The headline figure is misleading and offers no relief whatsoever to most families.

The magazine says that prices across the economy are still rising far more quickly than wages, and they are not doing so in the even manner suggested by the headline CPI rate:

The annual rate of inflation on food is still 19.1 per cent, down just 0.1 per cent from last month. In some shops – such as Lidl, where the same goods cost 24.9 per cent more than they did last year – prices are growing more than four times as fast as wages (which are up 5.8 per cent in a year).

To be absolutely clear, falling inflation does not mean prices are falling, but that they are rising slightly less quickly. For goods and services to become more affordable, inflation would have to fall below wage growth for a sustained period. This is unlikely to happen because unemployment is rising, and falling headline inflation could give employers more of an excuse to reduce or reject workers’ pay rises. At 8.7 per cent, inflation is still more than four times the Bank of England’s target. Workers across the economy are still becoming poorer at a very concerning rate.

Rishi Sunak promised at the start of the year to “halve inflation” and the latest headline inflation figure takes him some way towards that target. However, the main reason it’s lower is mathematical: CPI is a measure of how much prices have grown in the last year, and the biggest single element in recent price rises – the 54 per cent hike in everyone’s energy bill that occurred when Ofgem raised the price cap in April 2022 – is now more than a year in the past. The Prime Minister’s contribution to the fall in inflation has been to experience time passing, and then take credit for it.

This underscores just how mediocre the promise to halve inflation was in the first place: it was an offer of an economy in which the purchasing power of your income dwindles rapidly, but your impoverishment is slightly less aggressive than it was under the previous administration.

The headline figure also conceals a more disturbing trend. The prices of some goods and services, such as energy and food, can rise and fall rapidly, distorting the headline number, so “core” inflation – price rises in the less volatile parts of the index – is seen as a more stable representation of the overall temperature of the economy. Core inflation has not peaked: it rose from 6.2 per cent to 6.8 per cent in April, the highest level since March 1992.

A stubborn rate of core inflation may mean that the Bank of England is forced to raise interest rates still further, putting more pressure on low-income families who increasingly use debt to buy essentials, and homeowners who are remortgaging at much higher rates. Financial markets expect rates to peak at 4.75 per cent, which would mean they are likely to rise once more this year.

At the same time, the freezing of tax thresholds means that many middle earners such as nurses and teachers are being pushed into higher tax brackets. This squeezes their income wiping out reliefs such as child benefit and leaving precious little extra to compete with the racing prices in supermarkets.

Andy Bruce of Reuters believes that the UK has the highest rate of food inflation in Western Europe, as illustrated by this graph:

He has also set out some inflation figures April 2022 to April 2023 for some key items:

Sugar +47%
Olive oil +46%
Car insurance: +41%
Eggs +37%
Natural gas +37%
Sauce/condiments +34%
Milk +34%
Small electrical hh appliances: +32%
Frozen veg +31%
Cheese +31%
Sausages +28%
Pasta +28%
Pork +27%
Non-fiction books +27%
Potatoes +25%

It is pretty scary stuff, and shows that we are a long way from escaping this cost of living crisis.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Will the Lib Dems seize their opportunity over voters' Bregrets?

Back in January I wrote about a poll from Pollster UnHerd Britain that highlighted which areas of UK have the most and least regrets about Brexit. Their research suggested that the constituencies which most strongly voted for or against Brexit are still entrenched in their views almost seven years on despite the national mood shifting. Well things have moved on a bit since then.

The Independent reports that a new poll has found that Brexit regret among Leave voters has reached a record high.

The YouGov poll found more than a third of those who backed Leave in the referendum say Brexit has been more of a failure than a success, while just a fifth of Leave supporters said Brexit had been “more of a success”:

Overall, 62 per cent of voters said leaving the EU had been “more of a failure”, with just nine per cent saying it had been a “success”.

Among 18-24-year-olds, more than two thirds said Brexit had been “more of a failure”. Less than one in 20 considered it a “success”.

Support remains stronger in older age groups, but almost half of over-65s now consider Brexit to have been a “failure”.

The stark findings come just a week after Nigel Farage declared that Brexit had “failed”.

The former Brexit and UKIP Party leader said the UK had not “benefitted from Brexit economically”, claiming that government policy had deterred businesses from investing in the UK.

We are still a  long way from winning a referendum to rejoin the EU, even if they would have us back, but there is clearly an opportunity here for a political party prepared to tap into the mood and start to articulate a clear vision of how we can recover from the disaster that Brexit has been.

The party best positioned to do that has to be the Liberal Democrats. Isn't it time our leaders woke up and got on with the job?

Monday, May 22, 2023

Are Labour handing local councils back to the Tories?

The Guardian reports that the Labour Party faces accusations of overcentralised meddling after the party’s national executive vetoed planned coalitions with the Liberal Democrats or Greens in a series of formerly Conservative-held local authorities.

They say that while it is longstanding Labour policy that local parties need a green light from the national executive committee (NEC) before forming coalitions, some activists say attempts to block deals risk allowing Conservatives to regain control instead:

In one council, Hertsmere, just north of London, where the Tories lost power for the first time since 1999 in this month’s elections, Labour councillors are threatening to sit as independents if the NEC continues to veto a deal with the Lib Dems.

“This has been a Tory area for the last 24 years, and we’ve worked so hard to change that,” one local Labour source in the Hertfordshire district said. “It’s quite insulting now to be told we can’t get the benefits.”

A similar stalemate at Cherwell council in Oxfordshire, where the NEC is refusing to allow the Labour group to govern with the Lib Dems and Greens, has prompted speculation it could end up returning to Tory control.

There have been similar vetoes at two other formerly Conservative-run local authorities that are now in no overall control, Lewes in East Sussex and Canterbury in Kent.

Several local Labour sources told the Guardian they believed the party was being overly rigid and interventionist. It comes after the NEC announced it would appoint the next leader of Birmingham council, following an internal report that said the Labour group was riven by factions.

Labour's control freakery is in dangwer of undoing the outcome of this month's local elections in some areas and actually put the Tories back in charge.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Counting the voter suppression

The BBC add to our knowledge of those who were denied their democratic right to vote earlier this month, with their own survey of local councils and those turned away from polling stations for having no ID.

They report that information from 160 of 230 councils where polls were held this year shows 26,165 voters were initially denied ballot papers at polling stations. Of these, 16,588 people came back with valid ID, whilst 9,577 did not return:

David Cowling, a former BBC polling expert who is now a visiting research fellow at King's College London, also says it must be borne in mind that some voters initially turned away later return with ID.

He says evidence from metropolitan borough councils, and the pilots, suggests around 60% of people initially refused a ballot return with valid ID - producing a rough figure of 0.2% refusals of the votes cast.

"That's arguably 0.2% fewer people than there should be not participating - but on the other hand, it doesn't seem to me that the death of democracy is on the agenda either," he told BBC Radio 4's More or Less.

He adds, however, that there are "imponderables" in the council data, including the fact that people turned back by so-called greeters outside polling stations were not included in the published figures.

Labour MP Clive Betts, who chairs a Commons committee set to hold its own hearing on the new rules, also said official data would not reflect those who stayed at home, either because they didn't have ID or didn't know whether it would be accepted.

"The numbers of these people could be bigger than those who were turned away," he told the BBC.

He added that even if the number of people denied a ballot was in the thousands, it would be a "thousand times more" than the number of people prosecuted each year for voter fraud.

The Electoral Reform Society, a campaign group that opposes voter ID, warned that "far more" people would be turned away at the next general election unless the rule is scrapped.

"These figures, while not a complete picture, show what we've long feared," said Dr Jess Garland, the society's director of policy and research.

"One voter turned away is one too many, but these figures show that the impact was far, far greater."

The Electoral Commission will be collecting information on where greeters were used at polling stations, in order to assess the impact they had.

Jacob Rees-Mogg of course, has effectively admitted that the ID requirement is an attempt by the Tories to gerrymander elections, and that it backfired on them. There is no valid reason why ID should be required, with voter fraud being almost non-existent. 

It is time for a rethink, but will Labour commit itself to repealing the law?

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Ignoring the warnings

The Guardian reports that ministers were warned about the dangers of private equity taking over the water industry in a briefing that has been kept secret for 20 years.

The paper says that details of the analysis are still being withheld as sewage pollution and the failure of water companies to invest in infrastructure are under national scrutiny:

The report being withheld from publication predicted the state of the privatised water industry today, and warned against private equity being allowed to move into water firms.

It was prepared for the Competition Commission (now the Competition and Markets Authority, CMA) in 2002 and has never been published in full. It should have been released under the 20-year rule last summer, but despite repeated attempts to have it published it is being kept secret.

Today, as private equity dominates ownership of the water sector in England, bringing with it high levels of debt and underinvestment leading to sewage pollution, water shortages and leaks, the author of the report has called for full disclosure of his warning two decades ago.

Chris Goodall, who wrote the report for the Competition Commission investigation into a proposed takeover of Southern Water, said: “My real concern was about the financial structure of the proposed deal. In my view the transaction created an entity which would prove impossible to regulate.

“Large external private equity shareholders would load the company with debt and Ofwat inevitably would lose any regulatory control. For example, it would prove extremely difficult to ensure that water companies invested enough in sewage control.

“This report should be published in full now because it helps to show why the last 20 years of increasing private equity dominance of the water industry has proved so disastrous.”

This year the chief executive of Thames Water, Sarah Bentley, admitted high levels of pollution in rivers were the result of “decades of underinvestment” by the privatised water company. New data from the Financial Times shows the 10 biggest water companies more than doubled their dividend payments to shareholders in 2022 to £1.4bn, despite an outcry over sewage pollution in rivers and a failure to invest in infrastructure.

The CMA said the report, written in September 2002, had been passed for publication. But eight months on from the date it should have been published, it has not been released.

The CMA has warned it would be exempt from releasing the report under freedom of information laws if a request to do so was submitted. The authority said: “Without wanting to prejudge the outcome of any request you may make under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, I wanted to refer you to the exemption at s.22 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

“This exemption provides that information intended for future publication is exempt from release provided the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in release.”

The economist Dieter Helm has warned that the high levels of debt that the privately owned water companies have leveraged risk the stability of the companies.

So culpability on the part of all political parties. Surely, this report should be published now.

Friday, May 19, 2023


The Independent carries an interesting article on the American influence on the National Conservatism Conference.

They say that when Suella Braverman delivered a half-hour-long speech railing against “identity politics” and “radical gender ideology” on Monday, it was the first time most people had heard of the National Conservatism Conference:

The conference was run by an American group that professes to be concerned for “Western civilization” in the face of supposed enemies, including “radical forms of sexual licence” and the loss of “traditional family”, where relationships should be between men and women.

It is the project of a think tank called the Edmund Burke Foundation, which declares its aim to be “strengthening the principles of national conservatism in Western countries”. It also has links to an Israel-based Zionist research organisation.

The foundation’s website states that it was founded in 2019, but it was registered as a private limited company in the UK through Companies House in March, by Cambridge University theology professor Dr James Orr.

Dr Orr served as chair of this week’s conference, and proclaimed the values of “faith, family, flag” to the crowd before claiming that the “cargo cult of transgenderism is triggering a social contagion that is inflicting irreversible physical harms on the young and the vulnerable”.

In a series of other speeches this week, communities secretary Michael Gove held forth on “biological reality”, Conservative MP Miriam Cates claimed birth rates were the “one overarching threat to the whole of Western society”, fellow Tory MP Danny Kruger praised the “normative family”, and Jacob Rees-Mogg was interrupted by a demonstrator warning of the “characteristics of fascism”.

Conservative Party deputy chair Lee Anderson brought the curtain down on the three-day event on Wednesday afternoon, undeterred by the outrage generated by a previous speaker who had described the Holocaust as “the Germans mucking up”.

Joe Mulhall, director of research at the counterextremism group Hope Not Hate, said the topics discussed at the conference “dripped with far-right and populist conspiracy theories”.

Three years ago, Tory MPs who attended this conference were warned that their presence was unacceptable, and that the views expressed by attendees were not in accord with the core principles of the Conservative Party:

The group’s website proclaims: “We are citizens of Western nations who have watched with alarm as the traditional beliefs, institutions, and liberties underpinning life in the countries we love have been progressively undermined and overthrown.”

It calls for the restoration of a “proper public orientation toward patriotism and courage, honour and loyalty, religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman”, while decrying what it calls “universalist ideologies”.

The National Conservatism group’s published “statement of principles” is heavily focused on Christianity, along with ideas of “Western” identity and heritage and “traditional family”.

“The traditional family, built around a lifelong bond between a man and a woman, and on a lifelong bond between parents and children, is the foundation of all other achievements of our civilization,” one passage reads.

“The disintegration of the family, including a marked decline in marriage and childbirth, gravely threatens the wellbeing and sustainability of democratic nations. Among the causes are an unconstrained individualism that regards children as a burden, while encouraging ever more radical forms of sexual licence and experimentation as an alternative to the responsibilities of family and congregational life.”

Hailing the Bible as the “surest guide ... to the political traditions of the nation”, the statement calls for public life in the UK and the US to be “rooted in Christianity”.

Signed by leading members of the National Conservatism group, it claims that “unassimilated immigration” is a “source of weakness and instability” and demands restrictions that could amount to an unspecified “moratorium on immigration”.

But the statement insists that nationalism can “offer a sound basis for conciliation and unity” between people of different races, and respects the “unique needs of particular minority communities”.

This is very much the agenda of the American right wing. How things have changed in the Tory Party.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Not so fit for purpose

The so-called rock solid Brexit deal Boris Johnson sold to voters in 2019 contiunues to come apart at the seams.

The Independent reports that Rishi Sunak’s government is understood to be lobbying the EU to delay a change in manufacturing rules in the Brexit trade deal after Vauxhall’s parent company warned it could shut its UK factories:

Stellantis said it will be unable to keep a commitment to make electric vehicles in the UK without changes to Boris Johnson’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

Business secretary Kemi Badenoch has raised the issue with her Brussels counterpart, and held a pre-arranged meeting with Stellantis chiefs on Wednesday.

She has also raised the motor industry’s concerns about the TCA with chancellor Jeremy Hunt and foreign secretary James Cleverly, according to Whitehall sources.

The government is lobbying the EU to delay a 2024 deadline for changes in how much an electric car should be manufactured in the UK.

It comes as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said “we need a better Brexit deal” with the EU to ensure firms such as Vauxhall can continue to operate in the UK.

Stellantis has called on the government to reach an agreement with the EU to maintain existing rules until 2027 – rather than 2024’s planned changes which state 45 per cent of an electric car’s value should originate in the UK or EU to qualify for trade without tariffs.

Without meeting the requirements, cars manufactured in the UK would be hit with a 10 per cent tariff, making domestic production and exports uncompetitive with cars built elsewhere.

Stellantis – the parent of Vauxhall, Citroen, Peugeot and Fiat, which employs more than 5,000 workers in the UK – committed to making electric vehicles at its Ellesmere Port and Luton plants two years ago.

But in a submission to an MPs’ inquiry, the company said the Brexit deal was a “threat to our export business and the sustainability of our UK manufacturing operations”.

It said the rise in the cost of raw materials meant it was “unable to meet these rules of origin”. Part of the problem is that a battery pack can account for up to half a new EV’s cost, with batteries heavy and expensive to move long distances.

I hate to say that we told them so, but...

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

A crisis with no apparent end

The Indepedent reports on a study that has shown that more than 10 million adults in the UK are currently struggling with bills with some eating less and cancelling insurance policies in order to get by.

They say that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) found the number in financial trouble has grown by 3.1 million since May 2022 to now represent one in five of the population. Many have been forced to take measures such as using savings to fill an oil tank, using credit to pay for food shopping, cancelling insurance, quitting sports memberships and eating less:

The FCA research, which was published this week, found the number to have said they are struggling has risen from 7.8 million in May last year to 10.9 million in January 2023 - which is 21 per cent of the UK population.

The number of UK adults who had missed bills or loan payments in at least three of the previous six months is also estimated by the regulator to have increased by 1.4 million, from 4.2 million in May 2022 to 5.6 million in January 2023.

The regulator released the latest figures after gathering more than 5,000 responses as part of its UK-wide survey of people aged 18 and over.

Among people who had insurance and protection policies last spring, 8 per cent had cancelled one or more policies and 7 per cent had reduced their level of cover, specifically to save money due to rising living costs, in the six months to January this year.

Some did both – meaning that around 6.2 million adults who had policies in May 2022 had cancelled or reduced their coverage by January.

Richard Lane, director of external affairs at British debt charity StepChange, said: “The last twelve months have seen household budgets endure setback after setback, with once-in-a-generation levels of inflation compounded by rising interest rates and housing costs.

“Millions have had to make sacrifices to stay afloat, but many simply do not have the room in their budgets to absorb the dramatic price rises we’ve seen. As a result, demand for our services is at its highest level in more than three years, and we expect this to continue as cost pressures show little sign of abating.”

The FCA also found that around 28.4 million people in January 2023 felt more anxious or stressed due to the rising cost of living than six months earlier while 28 per cent had lost sleep.

With inflation in double figures, and likely to stay like that for some time, rising interest rates, soaring food prices and shortages caused by Brexit red tape, it does not look like there will be much relief for these families for some time to come.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Rees-Mogg comes clean on gerrymandering

Well, we've been saying it long enough, but now a senior Conservative has confirmed that the introduction of mandatory voter ID by the Government was an attempt to “gerrymander” future elections for the Conservative Party.

AS the Bylinetimes reports, the ex-Brexit Minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was part of Boris Johnson’s Government which introduced plans to force voters to present photo ID at polling stations, told the National Conservatism Conference in London that the plans were a “clever scheme” by his party to swing voters in their favour.

It's just a shame that the plans had “backfired” due to more older Conservative voters being less aware of the changes at the recent local elections:

“Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections”, Mogg said.

“We found the people who didn’t have ID were elderly and they, by and large, voted Conservative. So we made it hard for our own voters and we upset a system that worked perfectly well.”

Rees-Mogg previously defended the controversial policy, when he was Leader of the House, under Boris Johnson.

Answering questions about the proposals in 2021, Rees-Mogg suggested that opposition to the plan was due to “socialist” parties being less confident that their own voters would be able to turn up with photo ID, compared to Conservative voters.

“We have confidence in our voters… who won’t find it unduly onerous to turn up with an identity document of some kind,” he told MPs.

Rees-Mogg’s latest comments are the first admission from a senior Conservative figure that the voter ID plan was brought forward to help the party’s electoral chances.

Rishi Sunak has repeatedly defended the policy as a means of tackling “the potential for voter fraud”. But there is little evidence of in-person voter fraud in the UK. At the 2019 General Election, there was just one conviction for impersonation at polling stations.

However, new polling by Omnisis for Byline Times suggests that up to two million voters were put off from voting at the recent local elections due to the new requirements.

Early figures from some councils also suggest that, in some areas, hundreds of people were turned away from the polls.

Unfortunately, despite the Tories getting what was coming to them, the law is still on the statute book.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Bailing out Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has just paid £3.8m cash for a nine bed mansion, and yet taxpayers continue to pick up his legal bills as he seeks to defend himself in an investigation into his conduct while Prime Minister.

The Independent reports that Johnson’s legal defence fees for the Partygate inquiry, covered by the taxpayer, have soared again as the government again extended the contract:

The former PM’s legal bill has risen from £222,000 to up to £245,000 after the deal with a team led by top barrister Lord Pannick KC was extended for a second time.

Labour said Rishi Sunak must explain why he has “failed to put a stop to this brazen scheme”, as opposition parties argue Mr Johnson should pay the bill himself.

Mr Johnson – who has made over £5m since leaving office – remains under investigation by MPs over whether he misled parliament about what he knew of rule-breaking parties at No 10.

Solicitors firm Peters and Peters was initially awarded a contract worth £129,700 in August to provide Mr Johnson with advice during the privileges committee’s probe.

No 10 and the Cabinet Office have claim there is precedent for former ministers getting legal support covered by the taxpayer for anything relating to their duties while in government.

The government has pointed to legal advice given to ex- ministers during public inquiries into the Grenfell disaster and the BSE disease outbreak.

But these cases were statutory public inquiries rather than parliamentary inquiries launched by MPs.

Most recently, the then-deputy Dominic Raab covered his own legal fees for the independent probe into bulling claims which saw him resign last month.

The decision to pay these fees is a disgrace. Johnson should be forced to cover the cost himself.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Tory u-turn abandons millions of property owners

The editorial in yesterday's Guardian is spot-on in identifying the consequences for millions of propperty owners of the Tory u-turn on abolishing leasehold in England and Wales.

As the article points out the leasehold system of property ownership in England and Wales is a feudal relic, a hangover from the middle ages when powerful families wanted to retain ownership of their land while maximising their earnings from it. 

They say that about a fifth of homes in England are leasehold properties, many of them flats in cities. Under such contracts, homeowners enter into long-term leases in which they must pay a yearly ground rent to freeholders:

The scandal is that ground rents and service charges for maintenance can rise quickly to ridiculously high levels. Renters are exploited too, as landlords pass on the costs of such profiteering by increasing rent.

Last year a ban on ground rents being sold on future leasehold homes came into force. But almost 5m homes are still vulnerable to acquisitive freeholders. These voters are unlikely to think much of broken promises, especially when the big winners from this status quo will be offshore companies, investment funds and aristocratic landowners, including the royal family.

The issue has been rising up the political agenda, partly because of the cost of living crisis but also because the Grenfell Tower fire focused attention on the issues with cladding that leaseholders of flats had long endured. Mr Gove does plan stronger protections for tenants from exorbitant ground rents and will strengthen their hand in negotiations with freeholders. These are small steps forward in the right direction, but won’t go far enough for many people hit with the double whammy of rising mortgages and service charges.

The cabinet minister has called for a “sustainable housing settlement”, but often found himself on the losing side of the argument. In this case, the Treasury balked at the cost of buying out freeholders. He was also forced by rebellious Tory MPs to water down housing targets for local councils. Failing to build enough homes in Conservative areas placates today’s voters at the expense of future ones.

The British empire spread leasehold to every corner of the globe, but it disappeared along with the pith helmets. It is virtually gone from Scotland, where flat owners take stakes in the building. England and Wales did introduce an alternative – commonhold tenure, where homeowners appoint managing agents – in 2002. But this has failed to take off, unsurprising perhaps given that it is less attractive to developers than leasehold, which can secure ongoing income streams.

The Labour party has made the right noises but it has yet to say it would do what the Conservatives could not. Yet the Tories are in desperate need of the sort of popularity that ending leaseholding would earn. Instead, Mr Gove’s party appears unable to bite the hand that feeds it. The property sector was responsible for 20% of all donations taken by the Conservatives in the 10 years from 2010. By breaking a pledge to abolish the leasehold system, the Tories look more troubled by the needs of their backers than those of the country.

Will another party take up the baton? It looks unlikely. Can we go alone on this in Wales? I would hope so, but given the wishy washy and weak-kneed approach of Welsh Ministers to the cladding crisis, I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Counting those stopped from voting

The Guardian reports on the findings of a group of democracy observers that more than 1% of voters, half of whom appeared to be from minority ethnic backgrounds, were turned away from polling stations because of ID requirements at the local elections.

They add that Democracy Volunteers, a group of election observers, said it conducted snapshot surveys in 118 councils on 4 May, and recorded 1.2% of those attending polling stations turned away because they lacked the relevant ID, or were judged to not have it:

Of those turned away, 53% were identified by observers as appearing to be “non-white”. The group said its teams saw others allowed to vote despite not having ID.

The group, which sent 150 observers, said its staff generally formed teams of two or three, and attended 879 polling stations across all the regions of England.

It said these observers spent between 30 and 45 minutes at each location observing the process and then completed a survey for each polling station.

Earlier authorities admitted it would not be possible to accurately quantify how many voters lacking ID were turned away on 4 May. Charities and other groups have said more vulnerable groups of voters, including older people, transgender voters and those with disabilities, are disproportionately likely to lack the permitted ID.

Tom Brake, of Unlock Democracy, a campaign group for greater democratic participation, said: “This data confirms our prediction that as well as being damaging to our democracy, these unnecessary voter ID rules would be discriminatory too, having a particularly severe impact on ethnic minority voters.

“The whole concept is wrong in principle and the implementation has been a catalogue of chaos. Local authorities weren’t given the time or money to prepare properly in terms of raising awareness and training staff. There has been no plan to comprehensively gather robust data about the number of people refused a ballot, a task made particularly difficult by the use of so-called greeters outside of polling stations. And now we have an element of evidenced racial discrimination.”

So the Tories succeeded in stopping voters unsympathetic to their cause from voting. Despite that they had a disastrous set of elections. It should have been much worse for them.

Update: BBC Political Correspondent, Peter Saull has tweeted that local councils have started publishing data on how many voters were turned away last Thursday because they didn't have acceptable ID. He says that in Walsall, 1240 were turned away, 473 returned with ID, so 767 didn't vote. In Bradford 1261 turned away , 763 returned, 498 didn't vote.

He adds that the statistics only tell part of the story, as some councils employed people outside polling stations who didn't record how many voters were turned away. A fuller picture is expected from the Electoral Commission next month.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Report claims badger cull based on deeply flawed science

The Independent reports on a damning study that claims government experts have based the UK’s badger cull on a “confused and flawed” interpretation of the science.

The paper says that the study has called for an immediate rethink of the policy, after officials adopted an “ineffective and misguided approach” to tackling tuberculosis in dairy cows, leading to a policy that is “a self-perpetuating failure”:

The authors of the new report, who include biologist and veteran campaigner Tom Langton and Paul Torgerson, a professor of veterinary epidemiology, as well as badger researchers, accuse the government of “consistently misrepresenting” some of the science.

The study accuses the Animal and Plant Health Agency of reverting to 1980s “old thinking” that badgers are responsible for most bTB outbreaks,” which defies the available evidence and is an anathema to any correct application of modern disease epidemiology”.

“The APHA (and by extension the government)’s interpretation of the available evidence in relation to bTB epidemiology is confused and flawed,” it says.

“This review finds that there has been a compounding accumulation of assumption and error over the last decade.”

The report concludes the cull is “a self-perpetuating failure”.

It claims that a model by APHA of culling of badgers near Penrith, Cumbria, “backfired so badly that the disease is cropping up in and around land where badgers have been systematically eliminated since 2018”.

The report authors also criticise the use of whole-genome sequencing of the bacteria behind the disease, using artificial intelligence to estimate the chances of transmission between cows and wildlife.

The Badger Trust estimates that at least 33,627 badgers were killed last year to try to eradicate the disease, bringing the total to a total of 210,555 since the cull began in 2013 – meaning up to half of Britain’s badger population has been killed.

Surely, it is time to end the slaughter of this valuable and protected animal and use scientifically proven methods of tackling BTb instead.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

The Archbishop speaks out, but where is Labour?

The Mirror reports on the speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the House of Lords, when he launched a scathing attack on "morally unacceptable" Government plans to lock up refugees who reach the UK by small boats.

They say that Archbishop Justin Welby - fresh from his central role at King Charles's Coronation on Saturday - lashed out at Suella Braverman's draconian Illegal Migration Bill, saying it will do huge damage to the UK's standing in the world:

In a rare intervention he told peers that the legislation "fails to live up to our history, our moral responsibility and our political and international interests".

And in a devastating assessment of Ms Braverman's proposals, the Archbishop told the House of Lords there were "too many problems for one speech in this bill".

Mr Welby called it "isolationist", and said: "It's morally unacceptable and politically impractical to let the poorest countries deal with the crisis alone and cut our international aid."

Church leaders came out against the legislation, with the bishops of Durham and Gloucester also voicing their opposition.

He said the bill will "greatly damage" the UK, stating: "The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has warned that the bill could lead to the collapse of the international system that protects refugees.

"Is that what we want the United Kingdom's contribution to be in our leadership?"

And he warned that allowing the bill to pass could have devastating consequences for the UK.

Mr Welby said: "My Lords, this bill is an attempt at a short-term fix.

"It risks great damage to the UK's reputation at home and abroad, let alone the interests of those in need of protections or the nations who together face this challenge.

"Our interests are closely linked to our reputation for justice and the rule of law and our measured language, calm decision and careful legislation.

"None of those are seen here."

The bill also came under fire from the Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, who said it "poses fundamental questions about who we are as a nation".

"The state will view a child or a pregnant woman as individuals subject to immigration control, not as an innocent child or a vulnerable mother about to give birth," he said.

"We need to ask - what about the Government's duty to protect?"

The Bishop added: "I am reminded of Jesus' words: It would be better to have a millstone around the neck and be cast into the sea than to cause a little one to stumble.

"This responsibility needs to bear upon us heavily."

And Bishop of Gloucester Rachel Treweek voiced her alarm about the denial of modern slavery support for those who arrive in the UK by irregular means.

"It seems so wrong on so many levels, not least morally," the Bishop said.

"Why would anyone come forward as a victim of modern slavery? Why risk being sent to Rwanda?"

She continued: "I see a worrying failure to recognise the trauma experienced by victims."

Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Paddick tabled a motion for the bill to be scrapped altogether. If he had been successful then it could have forced the government to use the Parliament Act, effectively delaying it for a year, right up to a general election. Lord Paddock said: "This bill is seeking to deny human rights to a group of people desperately seeking sanctuary. The Human Rights Act is being revoked one bill at a time. This bill is a low point in the history of this Government."

He argued that the new law shouldn't proceed as it doesn't meet the UK's international law commitments and doesn't address the problems it's supposed to solve. "It also undermines the UK’s tradition of providing sanctuary to refugees by removing their legal right to claim asylum".

Despite these strong arguments the Labour Party appeared unmoved. The vast majority of the Labour peers refused to back his motion, allowing the bill to proceed to royal assent. It is almost as if they have lost their backbone.

The question now must be what is the point of Labour if they are just going to emulate the Tories?

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Are we looking at more empty shelves in the autumn?

The Independent reports on the fear of industry bosses that new Brexit red tape on EU imports could push up food prices and see more shortages in the supermarkets.

They say that food sector leaders are worried that port authorities are unprepared for the implementation of a series of checks, including health certifications on some animal, plant and food products from the EU, that are set to be phased in from October 2023 under Boris Johnson’s exit deal with Brussels:

New fees on goods coming into Britain from the EU will also add “hundreds of pounds” to the cost of importing each lorry-load of produce, business leaders told The Independent – a burden that could see some small firms “struggle to survive”.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents Britain’s biggest supermarkets, is concerned that the next wave of post-Brexit bureaucracy will see disruption at Dover and other ports, which could in turn lead to gaps in fruit and vegetables on the shelves.

Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, told The Independent that the extra checks could hit supply by delaying deliveries, and could also push up food prices as businesses pass on the additional costs to shoppers.

He said extra costs “are always an issue when we are tackling inflation”, but warned that “the main impact [of checks] could be on availability [of goods] if there is disruption at the ports”.

Mr Opie added: “In the autumn we increase imports of fresh produce from Europe that has a short shelf life, so it is imperative the system works well from day one to avoid impact on customers.”

Supermarkets are urging the government to provide ports with as much support as possible to prepare for the new checks. “Unfortunately, there is a cost – that was an inevitable consequence of Brexit,” said Mr Opie.

The retail expert added: “The key focus, however, must be getting European supply chains and UK government checks ready for October, to avoid disruption at our ports.”

Mr Opie will apprise peers of the ongoing post-Brexit problems for the food industry when he appears at the House of Lords committee hearing on the Northern Ireland protocol on Wednesday.

The warning comes after severe shortages of tomatoes, peppers and other salad vegetables earlier this year forced Britain’s major supermarkets to restrict sales, with photos of empty shelves mocked by people living in Europe.

Amid fears that shortages could become even more common, the government has warned business bosses that new checks on imports from the EU will add around £400m a year in extra costs – which is down from an initial estimate of just over £800m.

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, told The Independent that the extra burden of new paperwork and fees will see some small, specialist importers “struggle to survive”.

“What we’ll see is a decline in choice, because some of the smaller firms importing specialist products – bacon, ham, cheeses – that part of the business will fall by the wayside. Some will have to change their business model to survive,” he said.

Mr Allen – who wants a new veterinary standards deal to be established with Brussels in order to scrap the required health checks on goods – added: “Some exporters in the EU won’t bother to send stuff here because they will find other markets.”

Food sector chiefs have been told that inspection fees at ports will be between £23 and £43 for each batch of goods. But getting the extra health certification paperwork could run into “hundreds of pounds” for each lorry-load of produce, one food sector leader told The Independent.

Mr Allen said suppliers will have to pass on some of those extra costs – meaning higher prices in shops. “It will add to food inflation. At a time when it’s real struggle for families, it won’t make things any easier,” he said.

Empty supermarket shelves and highewr prices - that wasn't on the side of the Brexit bus.

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Spending priorities

With local government struggling to maintain services, and with some even facing bankruptcy, one would have thought that all councils need to conserve their resources to deliver the basics on behalf of residents. Alas, it appears a large number are able to still indulge themselves in feel-good events, while schools and social services struggle to make ends meet.

The Independent reports that local councils across the UK are set to spend more than £3.8 million of their own money on coronation events with research suggesting that some spent tens of thousands of pounds on events over the bank holiday weekend.

The paper adds that the findings from openDemocracy come amid the cost-of-living crisis, which has seen councils warned that they will need to find an extra £2.4bn this year to cover energy price rises and inflationary cost pressures:

The biggest spender on events to mark the coronation of King Charles III this weekend was Ealing Council, which spent over £180,000 on events including a live screening, performances and fireworks.

It comes after the council said in December it would have to make at least £2million of savings from its budget for public health, adult social care, and leisure centres after facing a deficit of £5million.

Barking and Dagenham Council in east London spent £155,000 over the weekend, despite being the fifth most deprived local authority in the UK.

Dominic Twomey, the deputy leader of Labour-run Barking and Dagenham Council admitted in March that the borough’s finances were at breaking point.

“We’ve already delivered more than £175m in savings since 2010 and there’s a further £5.689m planned this year – we’re reaching the point where there’s nothing left to cut,” he said.

Meanwhile, Newham Council spent over £168,000, while Richmond Upon Thames spent £150,000 and Sheffield Council spent £101,000

Some of the UK’s most deprived councils also spent thousands on celebrations. Birmingham City Council spent over £76,000, and Liverpool City Council spent a thousand pounds less. OpenDemocracy also found that Conservative-led Bromley Council spent £50,000 on coronation celebrations - taken from the borough’s community fund for grants to charities.

Labour opposition leader Simon Jeal told openDemocracy while he does not oppose the spending on coronation events, “it’s odd the Conservatives don’t fund celebrations for any other sorts of events.”

He said the Conservatives rejected a plan by Labour councillors in February to create a £5,000 fund for residents to run community events for occasions including Eid, Remembrance Sunday, Black History Month, Pride month, Chanukah and Chinese New Year.

Meanwhile, Southampton City Council, which is facing bankruptcy next year, is planning to spend £5,000 on coronation signs for lamp posts, despite plans to switch street lights off for three hours every night to save on electricity bills.

The coronation is set to cost tax payers between £50million and £150million, according to unofficial estimates.

However, the total amount of public funds spent on the coronation remains unknown, but some predictions suggest Operation Golden Orb – the crowning of Charles III and the Queen Consort – could cost the nation between £50-100m.

So, not as hard up as they claim, then.

Monday, May 08, 2023

Did the coronation end the right to protest in this country?

It looks like the Metropolitan police have been at it again, but this time they are backed up by some of the most draconian laws ever introduced in the UK.

The Independent reports that the chief executive of an anti-monarchy group who was arrested on the day of the King’s coronation has been released, after critics accused police of enforcing a “totalitarian crackdown.”

They add that Graham Smith was released after nearly 16 hours in police custody, while the majority of his Republic colleagues continued to be held:

Some 52 protesters from anti-monarchy and environmental groups were arrested on the day of the coronation, in what they slammed as a “dystopian nightmare”.

The Metropolitan Police had said it would facilitate anti-monarchy demonstrations unless they contravened existing laws or new powers that came into force last week banning “locking-on” and causing “serious disruption”.

But members of the Republic campaign group were arrested on Saturday morning and saw hundreds of placards reading “Not My King” seized by the force, despite gaining police permission for a rally in Trafalgar Square.

The group said its chief executive Graham Smith and five organisers were still in custody hours after the coronation had finished, writing on Twitter: “We are not being given a reason. They will probably be released when the whole monarchy PR show is over.”

One of the protesters joining the Republic rally, 30-year-old Harry Stratton, said police had told him that anyone getting in the way of the coronation procession “might get shot at”.

“They said ‘slogans. chanting - go for it - but if you start saying Andrew and the sex stuff we will start arresting,” he told The Independent.

Members of Republic were among around 50 protesters arrested, including other anti-monarchists, supporters of Just Stop Oil.

Animal Rising said a number of its supporters were apprehended on Saturday while at a training session “miles away from the coronation”.

Nathan McGovern, spokesman for the campaign group, described the arrests as “nothing short of a totalitarian crackdown on free speech and all forms of dissent”.

Amnesty International UK was among the human rights groups raising alarm about the arrests, saying peaceful protest was “clearly protected” under international law, while a Human Rights watch official slammed “scenes you’d expect to see in Russia not the UK”.

These are the sort of suppression techniques we could expect to see in a totalitarian regime, but it gets worse. The Independent also reports that Westminster Council are “deeply concerned” by reports that volunteers who work on women’s safety were arrested in the early hours of coronation day:

The Metropolitan Police said that at around 2am on Saturday three people were stopped by officers and arrested in the Soho area of central London on suspicion of conspiracy to commit public nuisance.

Among items seized were a number of rape alarms, the force said. Those arrested were reportedly volunteers with Westminster Council’s night life safety team.

The Met said it “received intelligence that indicated groups and individuals seeking to disrupt today’s coronation proceedings were planning to use rape alarms to disrupt the procession”.

However, Councillor Aicha Less, cabinet member for communities and public protection at Westminster City Council, said: “We are deeply concerned by reports of our Night Stars volunteers being arrested overnight.

“This service has been a familiar and welcome sight in the West End for a long time and have extensive training so they can assist the most vulnerable on the streets late at night.

“We are working with the Metropolitan Police to establish exactly what happened, and in the meantime, we are in touch with our volunteers to ensure they are receiving the support they need.”

Night Stars is a part of the council’s night safety campaign.

According to the council’s website, Night Star volunteers are “focused on working with the West End’s evening and night-time economy businesses to promote women’s safety and reduce violence against women and girls”.

It adds: “The team will provide wider support to anyone who becomes vulnerable due to intoxication to reduce the risk to their safety or prevent them from becoming victims of crime.

“The Night Safety volunteers aim to make London’s nightlife safer for everyone.

“They provide a welcoming place for all and collaborate to ensure that Westminster’s nightlife remains a safe, inclusive and enjoyable experience for residents and visitors alike.”

This is an established team of volunteers committed to helping vulnerable women, being targeted by the Met because they can't tell their arse from their elbow. 

And the force also repeated a faux pas by another force from November 2022, when they arrested journalist, Rich Felgate, who was reporting on a Just Stop Oil protester.

Felgate, who was also the victim in the previous incident, tweeted a video of the arrest, saying that he was wearing his credentials at the time. 'Police stopped me filming', he wrote, 'they ripped my press pass off and handcuffed me behind my back.'

So much for democracy and free speech.

Friday, May 05, 2023

The wrong documents

As many predicted the requirement to present ID at polling stations in England yesterday did not just cause chaos in some areas but actually prevented people from exercising their democratic rights.

And it wasn't just voters being turned away on the day. As the Metro reports, some councils actually rejected up to 15 per cent of applications for the new voter authority certificate.

The paper says that data obtained through Freedom of Information requests found that there have been hundreds of rejected applications, with one local authority rejecting more than a quarter of the applications it received:

76 out of the 230 councils holding elections on Thursday responded to FOI requests and provided data on 16,000 applications – about one in six of the total submitted.

Overall, 889 applications, or 5.55%, were rejected, however the rejections were unevenly spread with some councils not rejecting a single application while others rejected around one in six.

Issues with photographs, not being registered to vote in the first place, or not submitting their national insurance numbers were the most common reasons for rejection.

Meanwhile, on the day itself, the Guardian says that the introduction of voter ID in England left a number of people, often from more marginalised groups, unable to cast ballots in local elections.

The add, however, that opposition MPs and some administrators said a lack of conclusive data collection for the numbers who were unable to vote could mean the problem was notably worse than it appeared:

Anecdotal reports from campaigners, MPs and voters highlighted a series of examples in which people were turned away because they lacked one of the relatively small list of photo ID documents, under the law used for the first time in Thursday’s poll.

These cover slightly more than 8,000 seats across 230 councils in England, including metropolitan, unitary and district authorities, plus four mayoral races.

Tor Udall, a writer in Oxford, said she had been left in tears after watching an older woman with mobility problems refused a vote because her document was not the correct one.

One campaigner said they knew of about a dozen people being unable to vote in a single council area, with other reports saying older voters appeared often involved.

Some voters who are transgender or have transgender partners reported not being able to vote because their documents did not match their new name, having had difficulty applying for the government-issued voter ID certificate.

Clinically vulnerable people reported difficulties due to rules that say voters must remove any face coverings so staff can check their identity, with at least one voter being turned away.

Andrea Barrett, a voter in Hampshire who is immunocompromised, said she was not allowed to vote at her polling station, despite providing photographic ID and a video of her putting on her mask, as she refused to remove her face covering inside.

“I was denied my right to vote in person,” said Andrea. “As an immunosuppressed person, I should have been able to vote safely with appropriate reasonable adjustments in place.”

Mark Oakley, co-leader of the patient campaign group Evusheld for the UK, representing immunocompromised people, said they had heard a number of people had to “dig their heels in and say they weren’t taking off their mask”.

“We know lots of people contacted their local council about this and were told this was the guidance,” he said. “And we know many people said if that was the case then they weren’t even going to go to the polling station as they don’t want to risk it. And by the time people realised what the guidance was, it was too late to apply for a postal vote.

“We knew it was going to be a problem and we flagged it to the Electoral Commission weeks ago.”

So the Tory voter suppression tactics seem to have worked. They will be gutted however, that the new requirements didn't prevent them having a worse-than-expected night at the polls.

Thursday, May 04, 2023

A brave move

The Welsh Government's decision to proceed with a council tax revaluation in the year before Senedd elections is a necessary but brave move.

Unlike England and Scotland, Wales has done this before in 2003, so at least our properties are being taxed on a reasonably up-to-date valuation. Elsewhere in the UK, council tax bands are based on 1991 values.

As the Minister adnits there will be winners and losers in any revaluation, and back in 2003 the losers were very vocal and the political journey less than comfortable.

The problem with Council Tax, of course is that it can be quite regressive, not least as property values do not necessarily equate to income. If done properly, some of these bumps can be ironed out. 

The question is, whether Ministers are prepared to carry out the root and branch reform required, or just tinker with the system in the hope that their efforts will make some difference.

The most radical proposals were outlined back in 2014 by Professor Gerry Holtham, I reviewed his paper at the time, on the IWA blog here.

Holtham argued that council tax is essentially regressive, but because it is a property tax it is hard to avoid, it does not distort economic activity and it is easily understood. Its one disadvantage is that it requires regular revaluations to remain relevant.

Gerry Holtham explained that property values 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 his 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 argued that this would lead to gradual change and do away with the need for revaluation.

He suggested 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 said that taxpayers in band D would pay just over 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, which is well over £250m a year in Wales and growing. Every time a council bills taxpayers more, a proportion of the revenue gained has to go to subsidising those who can't afford to pay it.

Holtham suggested 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 in force in many authorities. In Gwynedd, 10% of the housing stock consists of second homes.

So far the Minister has only suggested that she is looking at adding additional council tax bands at the top of the scale, and has said that there will be regular revaluations from now on. Perhaps she needs to look again at Gerry Holtham's more radical proposals to avoid that future pain, and achieve a fairer outcome first time.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Last chance saloon?

The BBC report on the claim of more than 40 environment organisations that Wales has become "one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world".

They say that the Senedd is set to pass a new agricultural bill this month, but charities have argued the "crucial" reforms do not go far enough:

One in six species - from salmon to hedgehogs - is currently at risk of extinction in Wales, with 73 having already disappeared since the 1970s.

The group, which includes the WWF, RSPB and Wildlife Trust Wales, said in the letter seen by BBC Wales that none of the country's natural ecosystems - such as rivers or woodlands - is classed as resilient enough to face threats including climate change.

Some farming organisations - including The Landworkers' Alliance and Nature-Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) - also signed the letter and said they were "increasingly concerned" the Agriculture (Wales) Bill would fail to deliver for wildlife.

They asked Members of the Senedd (MSs) to make changes before it is passed on 16 May.

The legislation will pave the way for a new funding model for farming - as pre-Brexit era subsidies are replaced by the Welsh government's Sustainable Farming Scheme.

But the charities said the wording was too weak to influence real change and could prove "disastrous".

They want the phrase "restore nature" added as a clear objective of the plans to reform agriculture.

The bill currently uses an older concept of "maintain and enhance" rather than "restore" - lifted from the Environment (Wales) Act of 2016.

The organisations warned this does not match the ambition shown in a landmark global agreement on biodiversity at the COP15 summit in Canada last December, which highlighted there were "just seven years left to halt and reverse the loss of our natural world".

"The way we manage land through agriculture is the biggest driver of nature loss in Wales," explained Shea Buckland-Jones, policy manager at WWF Cymru.

"So in turn the agriculture bill - if designed right - provides us with a once in a lifetime opportunity."

"This is about influencing the system that sits around farmers in Wales - they are the guardians of the land," he said.

"If we don't get this bill right, we won't be in a position to meet some of those targets that the Welsh government has signed up to at COP15."tt

It's time to get real in protecting Welsh environmental diversity,

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Excessive profits cannot be justified

The Guardian reports on the uproar after BP posted its profits for the first quarter od 2023.

The energy company said its underlying profits reached $5bn (£4bn) in the first three months of the year, outstripping analysts’ forecasts of $4.3bn. It represents the second-best results for the first quarter that it has notched up since 2012, when it made $4.7bn, behind last year’s $6.2bn.

Quite rightly, this announcement has sparked renewed calls for a tougher windfall tax to help offset the mouth-watering electricity and gas bills that most British families are struggling to afford to pay:

Paul Nowak, the TUC general secretary, said oil and gas companies were treating the British public “like cash machines”.

He said: “These eye-watering profits are an insult to working families as millions struggle with sky-high bills. The government has left billions on the table by refusing to impose a proper windfall tax on the likes of BP. And even now ministers are refusing to take action to fix our broken energy market and stop this obscene price gouging.

“We could have lower household bills and an energy system that served the public, if government taxed excessive profits, introduced a social tariff and created public ownership of new clean power.”

Global Justice Now, the campaign group, said: “Today’s heinous profits from BP are another kick in the teeth to the millions of people who can’t afford to heat their homes.”

There is a clear case to expand the UK windfall tax to capture profits made from refining oil and selling fuel, while scrapping the tax break on fossil fuel extraction. We also need far more investment in renewable energy generation and insulating people's homes.

Monday, May 01, 2023

Tory voter suppression to be hidden by failure to count turn-aways

The Independent reports that a government minister has admitted that the number of people turned away from voting because they don't have the right ID will not be fully recorded.

The paper says that the admission by Communities minister Rachel Maclean, yesterday, means that the effect of the government's new voter ID policies – which critics have characterised as voter suppression – may never be known:

While people turned away at polling station desks will be recorded, people who are alerted at the door that they will need ID and who then leave will not count, the minister said.

"If someone decides not to exercise the right to vote in a free and democratic society, it’s not for the agent of a local authority to intrusively ask why that person decides not to vote," the minister told MPs.

The government says the new requirements for voter ID will help protect the security of elections, despite in-person voter fraud being almost unheard of at scale in British elections.

May's local elections will be the first in Great Britain where voters will be required to have some form of photographic ID in order to vote.

Speaking in the Commons yesterday Labour MP Nick Smith said voter suppression had "already occurred" because many voters who needed ID still did not have it.

"For this set of elections the Electoral Commission tell me that 250,000 to 350,000 people should have applied for a voter ID certificate," he said.

"As of the deadline just 85,000 were issued despite the estimated £4 million advertising budget.

"Given just the voters requiring voter ID applied for the certificate, does the minister accept that voter suppression has already occurred?"

Ms Maclean said she rejected this conclusion.

The Minister believes that it is not the government's responsibility to encourage people to vote or understand why they did not. 

And yet Ministers have taken it upon themselves to introduce unnecessary measures to actually discourage voting amongst those most likely to oppose the Tories.

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