.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Welsh Development bank lost £62m

Nation Cymru reports that the Development Bank of Wales – which is wholly owned by the Welsh Government – made a loss of more than £62m, according to its latest accounts:

Launched in 2017, when it succeeded its predecessor Finance Wales, the bank’s remit is to invest in companies that, despite having a good business model, can find it difficult to secure credit from the commercial banking sector.

DBW has been in the news recently because of its role in the “dodgy donations” scandal involving Mr Gething.

Nation.Cymru revealed how Mr Gething had received donations totalling £200k for his successful Welsh Labour leadership campaign from Dauson Environmental group, whose main director and owner is David Neal, who has been given two suspended prison sentences for dumping toxic sludge in the Gwent Levels, a sensitive landscape to the south east of Newport.

We also revealed that one of the companies in the group had received a £400k loan from DBW – raising questions about why it had been necessary to borrow money from the Welsh Government’s bank. At the time of the loan, Mr Gething had responsibility for DBW as Minister for the Economy, although he has stressed that he has no decision-making role in relation to loans made to companies by the bank.

It really is not going well for Wales' new First Minister.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Dirty Tricks

One way of telling if an election is imminent is when the number of dirty tricks being played by party workers on their opponents start to get out of hand.

We have already seen the campaign manager of a Tory MP buying up domain names in their Lib Dem opponent's name before directing them to the Tory's website, now we have allegations that Tory staff in London have been running a network of anti-Ulez Facebook groups riddled with racism and abuse.

The Guardian reports that Conservative party staff and activists are secretly operating a network of Facebook groups that have become a hotbed of racism, misinformation and support for criminal damage.

They add that an investigation has identified 36 groups that appear to be separate grassroots movements opposing the expansion of ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) schemes to reduce air pollution. They do not say they were set up by the Conservatives as part of a coordinated political campaign:

The closed groups – which have a combined membership of 38,000 – have been a forum for Islamophobic attacks on Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan, with members calling him a “terrorist sympathiser” and a “khaki punt” and saying they would pay to get him “popped”. Other posts promote white supremacist slogans, antisemitic conspiracy theories and have encouraged the destruction of Ulez enforcement cameras.

The findings by Greenpeace’s investigative unit, Unearthed, shared with the Observer, are the latest controversy to embroil the party over its campaigning tactics and attacks on Khan. Its former deputy chairman, Lee Anderson, was suspended in February after claiming “Islamists” were controlling the London mayor, and a Tory attack video used scenes of a panicked crowd at a New York subway station to claim Londoners were in fear of crime.

Senior Tories have made posts in some of the groups, including the London mayoral candidate Susan Hall, who is a member of six groups and has posted in two. Hall did not respond to requests for comment.

The findings also raise questions about transparency. It is not made clear to the groups’ members that they are linked to the Conservatives. But most share the same three administrators, believed to be two CCHQ staffers and an activist who helped run an MP’s digital campaigns.

Rachel Cromie, an administrator of all 36 groups, is a Tory councillor in Haywards Heath, Sussex. Her current register of interests lists Conservative campaign HQ in a section on employment and she has previously been described as an area campaign manager for the party. An earlier register of interests shows she was head of operations for a political consultancy founded by a former consultant at Cambridge Analytica. Cromie did not respond to requests for comment.

Another Conservative party employee, who has been one of its digital campaign managers since February this year, is an administrator of 27 groups. Others include councillors, party officials and a local mayor.

The Observer also found Tory activists posting in the groups without declaring their political affiliation. One posted a meme calling Khan an “arse” alongside laughing emojis. The approach appears to have enabled the targeting of political messages at certain groups without the need to follow Facebook transparency rules, which require formal ads to carry a disclaimer.

The forthcoming General Election is already looking as if it might be very spicy.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Gething donations row rumbles on

The row over the £200,000 donation to Vaughan Gething's leadership campaign is refusing to go away. Over the weekend the new Welsh Economy Minister and leadership rival, Jeremy Miles effectvely threw the First Minister under the bus when he would not have accepted the money.

Now, the new Welsh Transport Minister and co-chair of Vaughan Gething's leadership campaign, Ken Skates has said he had nothing to do with the controversial donation from a waste firm owned by a man previously convicted of waste offences. Furthermore, he revealed that the Gething campaign was aware of the donor's previous convictions at the time. Despite that, Gething accepted the donations.

And it isn't just the opposition who believe that accepting this donation was inappropriate. There is clearly considerable unease within the Labour Party as well. 

The BBC report that Welsh Labour's most senior council leader says it would "probably be better" if his party did not accept leftover donations to Vaughan Gething from a controversial waste company.

Under the rules the first minister will have to hand over any unspent leadership campaign donations, including £200,000 from Dauson Environmental Group, to his party. 

However, Andrew Morgan, who is leader of the Welsh Local Government Association and Rhondda Cynon Taf council, has suggested that might not be a good idea "because of the huge public and media storm":

Andrew Morgan, who was a significant supporter of Vaughan Gething's rival Jeremy Miles during the leadership campaign, told the BBC Walescast podcast that if he had been in Mr Gething's position he "probably" would not have taken the money.

"I don't think anything untoward would happen, in terms of having preferential treatment etc, because there's too many safeguards for that."

He said the real issue was "public perception".

"From my point of view... probably I would have just have said no, and looked for funding elsewhere."

He added: "Because of the huge public and media kind of storm around this, my own gut feeling would be, [it would] probably be better if maybe the party didn't accept it - but that's not for me to decide.

"I'm not sure if it goes to Welsh Labour or if it actually will go to the national [UK] party."

Not a good start to Gething's leadership. Maybe, he should just give the money back.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Profits before pollution

The Guardian reports that the Tories have pushed through a duty on the water regulator to prioritise growth, which experts have said will incentivise water companies to value their bottom lines over reducing sewage pollution.

They add that campaigners fear this move will weaken Ofwat’s ability to crack down on water companies as it may force the regulator to consider a company’s financial situation and the impact on its growth if the firm is heavily fined for polluting:

The Liberal Democrats forced a vote in parliament on Wednesday on the government’s new “growth duty” for Ofwat, which requires the regulator to “have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth” when cracking down on water companies. They lost, as 50 MPs voted against the statutory instrument and 395 voted in favour.

The growth duty specifically mentions fines of companies as a measure that could hamper their growth. It says: “Certain enforcement actions, and other activities of the regulator, can be particularly damaging to growth.

“These include, for example, enforcement actions that limit or prevent a business from operating; financial sanctions; and publicity, in relation to a compliance failure, that harms public confidence.”

Last year water companies were ordered to cut more than £100m from customers’ bills after repeated failures to stop sewage pollution.

Campaigners fear the growth duty could cause the regulator to be less stringent with penalties because it would have to consider the commercial impact of fines on a company.

The financing of some water companies is already in a precarious state; Thames Water is currently at risk of collapse.

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “The growth duty once again privileges business bottom lines over nature. Public demand and environmental need are totally clear – Ofwat should be promoting investment in nature and ensuring polluters pay.

“A new duty that obliges the regulator to think twice before taking environmental action is headed entirely in the wrong direction. Parliamentarians are right to oppose this backward step.

“The real economically responsible action is to protect the natural assets we depend on. Political parties should commit instead to a new green duty on regulators to ensure they take action to stop climate change and restore nature.”

Labour MPs voted with the government, and it is understood this is because they did not want to be accused of being “anti-growth”.

When Labour and the Tories prefer to put profits before tackling pollution, we know that they do not care about our environment.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

An expensive mistake

Having effectively used up the entire road safety budget to spend £34 million introducing a 20mph default speed limit into Wales, Welsh Ministers have now performed a u-turn and said that local councils can restore some of the 30mph roads to their original speed restriction.

The catch is that the changes could cost up to £5 million more. At least the Welsh Government will pay for this, but this £39 million is money that could have been spent elsewhere, not least in improving safety around schools.

The obsession with introducing rarely used cycle tracks at the cost of tens of millions of pounds, and in the process disrupting entire communities is another example of good money being wasted on untested policy decisions without any proper thought being given to the impact on people's lives.

The argument in both cases of course is that ministers are trying to get people out of their cars in an attempt to influence climate change but, noble as that is, it doesn't stop Labour Ministers cutting subsidies for bus services, leaving many communities isolated and dependent on cars.

These exercises in hubris are what happens when you let ideologues like Sustrans and high-minded academics dictate policy instead of talking to voters and working with them to properly target expenditure at measures that will make a difference and have public support.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Lords capitulate

Depressing news this morning as the House of Lords finally capitulated and allowed the Government's Rwanda Bill to pass into law. The Council of Europe’s human rights watchdog has stepped in immediately to condemn Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda scheme, saying it raises “major issues about the human rights of asylum seekers and the rule of law”.

The Guardian reports that the body’s human rights commissioner, Michael O’Flaherty, said the bill was a grave concern and should not be used to remove asylum seekers or infringe on judges’ independence:

“I am concerned that the Rwanda bill enables the implementation of a policy of removing people to Rwanda without any prior assessment of their asylum claims by the UK authorities in the majority of cases,” O’Flaherty said, adding that the bill “significantly excludes the ability of UK courts to fully and independently scrutinise the issues brought before them”.

The UK remains a member of the pan-European body that promotes human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the continent.

O’Flaherty warned that the UK was prohibited from subjecting, even indirectly, people to “refoulement” – the act of forcing a refugee or asylum seeker to a country or territory where he or she is likely to face persecution – including under article 3 of the European convention on human rights, under the refugee convention, and under “a range of other international instruments”.

Sunak has said flights will begin taking asylum seekers to Kigali within 10-12 weeks, admitting he would miss his target of flights taking off by spring. Speaking after the passing of the bill, the prime minister pledged it would be a “fundamental change in the global equation on migration”.

But a Home Office minister said the government was prepared for “inevitable” legal challenges to the Rwanda scheme, saying there were those who were “determined to do whatever it takes to try and stop this policy from working”.

Charities and rights groups have condemned the passing of the bill as a “stain on this country’s moral reputation”.

It doesnt matter what the government puts in an Act of Parliament, they cannot just legislate away their international obligations.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Nice work if you can get it

There is no better sign that a ship is sinking than if all the rats start deserting it. The only question is how long Rishi Sunak can stay on the bridge before facing up to reality and going to the electorate in search of a refit.

The Observer reports that a cohort of Conservative MPs standing down before the next election have netted jobs worth millions of pounds and have taken dozens of all-expenses-paid trips funded by foreign governments and lobbyists.

The paper says that sixty-four serving Tory MPs and four independent MPs who lost the Tory whip have announced that they plan to stand down at the next election amid polling that suggests their party may face an electoral wipeout, but analysis has found that 34 members of that group, the vast majority of whom are current or former ministers, listed a net total of over £2.5m of expected annual income in the register of MPs interests:

One transparency campaigner said the findings suggested departing Tory MPs were “taking their eyes off the day job” and trying to “cash in on their political connections to secure lucrative jobs”.

While some of the jobs were for smaller sums, 11 MPs listed roles worth over £100,000 a year. At the top of the list was former justice secretary Brandon Lewis, who has taken on five new part-time roles worth £410,000 a year alongside his commitments as an MP.

The most lucrative were for LetterOne Holdings, an “international investment business”, and FM Conway, an infrastructure and road-building company that frequently works for local and national government.

Former chancellors of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng and Sajid Javid registered work worth £98,600 and £321,000 a year respectively, including, in Javid’s case, a £300,000-a-year part-time advisory role to Jersey-based investment firm Centricus Partners.

In January, former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab registered a £118,000-a-year role working for private equity firm Appian Capital, for which he needed to work for roughly a week of every month.

Some 26 of the departing MPs have also taken all-expenses-paid trips to the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, usually paid for by lobbyists or the governments of foreign states.

Independent Beckenham MP Bob Stewart, who surrendered the Tory whip late last year before he successfully appealed against his conviction for a racially aggravated public order offence, registered eight foreign trips worth nearly £20,000.

Meanwhile, backbencher Lisa Cameron, who defected to the Conservatives from the SNP last year but is not to set to contest her seat in the next general election, registered six visits outside the UK, including one paid for by the government of Thailand and one by the government of Qatar.

Former business secretary and Cop26 president Alok Sharma listed some 11 subsidised trips worth over £95,000. That was alongside over £330,000-a-year’s worth of outside work. Sharma said: “Much of my travel outside the UK is related to voluntary and unpaid work I undertake to advance climate action. This includes travel to support greater ambition through the Cop process, including visits to the UAE which hosted Cop28 last year.”

As Rose Zussman, the senior policy manager of Transparency International, says, even MPs standing down “have a duty to represent their constituents” until they leave. She adds that these revelations raise “questions about whose interests these MPs are serving and whether they are using their privileged positions to benefit those funding them”.

Surely, the time has come when MPs seeking lucrative roles like these should stand down from Parliament and let somebody else do the job who is committed to serving their constituents full-time.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Further revelations in the Vaughan Gething campaign money saga

Nation Cymru poses a very reasonable question, asking was Welsh Government loan money used to donate £200,000 to First Minister, Vaughan Gething?

They do so in light of the latest revelation that newly published accounts, filed at Companies House. have revealed that companies run by a convicted criminal that bankrolled Vaughan Gething’s Welsh Labour leadership campaign owe £400,000 to a bank wholly owned by the Welsh Government. 

They add that this has raised concerns that Mr Gething’s successful campaign may have effectively been financed by money borrowed from the Welsh Government:

The Welsh political world was rocked when Nation.Cymru reported in February how Dauson Environmental Group Ltd had donated a total of £200,000 to the Cardiff South and Penarth MS – a sum way in excess of previous donations to Welsh politicians.

Dauson and its subsidiary companies, including Atlantic Recycling Ltd, are owned by businessman David Neal, who has received two suspended jail sentences for illegally dumping toxic sludge at the Gwent Levels, a sensitive wetlands landscape with a protected status to the south east of Newport.

Mr Gething narrowly defeated Jeremy Miles in the contest to succeed Mark Drakeford as party leader, a victory that made his election as First Minister inevitable.

Many take the view that he could not have won without the considerable financial support provided to him by Dauson. It is understood that a significant share of the money was used to pay individuals to make campaign phone calls to party members from a phone bank in the run-up to the leadership election.

Entries on the Electoral Commission’s register of political donations show that Dauson Environmental Group, based in Mr Gething’s constituency, donated £100k to his campaign on December 18 2023 and a further £100k on January 11 2024. Both donations were registered with the Commission on February 7 2024.

A business researcher who does not wish to be named contacted Nation.Cymru and told us: “Companies House records show that money was lent to Atlantic Recycling and Dauson Environmental Group by the Development Bank of Wales (DBW) during the period when Vaughan Gething, in his previous role as Economy Minister, was the minister responsible for DBW. The Welsh Government owns 100% of DBW’s shares.

“The 2022/23 accounts just filed show that a £400k bank debt was raised during that year, which accords with DBW taking charges over Dauson and Atlantic on February 28 2023. So it’s probably DBW who lent the money.

“If this company needed to borrow £400k, how was it in a position to lend £200k as a political donation to the Minister responsible for DBW? The implication is that money lent by DBW to the group may effectively have ended up being donated to Vaughan Gething’s leadership campaign.”

Furthermore, an additional charge on the assets of Atlantic Recycling was granted to HSBC on February 28 2024.

The reputational threat to the Senedd and Welsh devolution is enormous. We cannot afford a Westminster-style scandal.  Surely, these latest revelations are the final straw that will prompt Gething to give the money back.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Brexit plans in ‘complete disarray’

The Guardian reports that businesses have described Britain’s Brexit border plans as being in “complete disarray” after it emerged the introduction of some checks on EU imports will be delayed.

They add that post-Brexit border rules, due to come into force on 30 April, will require many meat, dairy and plant products from the EU to be physically checked at government border control posts, but trade bodies have said fresh confusion about when the checks would begin were “incredibly challenging” for business planning, while others said serious questions remained about the government’s readiness for the regime:

Under the rules, medium- and high-risk products, which include meat and dairy products, as well as most plants, could be subject to checks at the borders as part of a move to enhance the UK’s biosecurity.

The Financial Times reported that the government would not “turn on” the checks on 30 April in an attempt to avert delays because border systems were not fully ready.

However, the government insisted the checks would be commencing on 30 April but indicated they would be focusing on higher-risk products and scaling up checks on other products in a “sensible and controlled way”.

The Guardian understands this will mean the government will focus the checks on the highest-risk products across high and medium bands, and then slowly build up to full checks. The government has yet to give a timeline on this but said it would take a “pragmatic approach”.

There have already been five previous delays to the implementation of the checks, which were initially set to come in in July 2021.

Phil Pluck, the chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation (CCF), said: “The ongoing confusion about how and when new checks will be introduced makes these preparations incredibly challenging.

“A phased approach is the right one but businesses urgently need clear information about what exactly these phases will include, and a definitive timeline.”

Martin McTague, the chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said the system was in “complete disarray” and businesses were having to “decode messy and unclear messages” from Whitehall over whether they would face checks.

In January, the first phase of the border target operating model was introduced, with medium- and high-risk goods having to secure plant health and vet sign-offs before they could be exported to the UK.

Nan Jones, the technical policy manager at the British Meat Processors Association, said it was aware importers were making a high rate of mistakes in the new paperwork, which was causing issues with the government’s IT system at the border.

She said: “Currently there is no consequence for this error but once the new border controls come into force, these errors will result in consignments being directed to a BCP for an inspection.

“This could result in UK border posts being overwhelmed with extra work they are not equipped to process.”

We're going to need a bigger bus.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Goat warning signs needed

The BBC reports that residents in a north Wales town are calling for more signage after a small herd of goats were killed after being hit by a vehicle.

They say that four goats died earlier this month when they were hit on the A470 at Wormhout Way, Llandudno, Conwy county. 

These are of course, the famous Great Orme goats that have roamed Llandudno and Craig y Don since the pandemic lockdowns, when they moved into the area’s empty streets:

The council said it used highways-approved wild animals signs on its roads, but would not fence in the animals due to the risk of the authority becoming solely responsible for their welfare.

Grandmother-of-four Wendy Keenan is leading a campaign, asking the council to install better signs to warn drivers that the animals may venture onto the roads.

“They do need to do something. Four goats were killed and it really upset me. I’m an animal lover and a vegan. I just feel that nobody seems to be looking after those goats,” she said.

“They just seem to be wandering, and I’ve always worried there might be an accident. People come to town, and they might not even know about the goats. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and now it has.”

She added the road where the accident happened was on the way to Ysgol Creuddyn, meaning there could be a risk to children travelling to and from school caused by animals in the road.

“The goats are really important to Llandudno. It is unique, isn’t it?” she said.

“You can’t go anywhere in the world where you’ve got goats roaming freely, and people do come here to catch a glimpse of them in town.”

The Great Orme goats have been wandering the area since they ventured there during the pandemic

Conwy council has been working with Llandudno town council, Mostyn Estates, Natural Resources Wales, and the RSPCA to create a plan to manage the animals and minimise conflict with residents.

Last year, it revealed there were 153 goats on the Great Orme, including a small group grazing around Nant y Gamar Road in Craig y Don.

The goats are becoming a national institution but it seems that their freedom to roam is incompatible with the environment they are now encroaching on.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Oops, they did it again!

There is no surer sign of a government party in its desth throes than a succession of scandals amongst its MPs leading to suspensions, resignations and bad newspaper headlines like these.

The Guardian says that a Conservative MP has lost the party whip over allegations he misused campaign funds and demanded thousands of pounds from an aide to pay off “bad people” in the middle of the night:

Mark Menzies, 52, was suspended from the Tory parliamentary party on Wednesday night while an investigation is carried out.

The Conservatives took action after the allegations were made public in a report by the Times.

Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, said the party had been aware of the claims “for a while” but “further information came to light yesterday”.

Shapps told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “I understand that CCHQ have been aware for it for a while and have been investigating, and I think some new investigation has come to light subsequently.”

Menzies denies the allegations and maintains he has followed all the rules about funding declarations.

The case is the latest alleged misconduct scandal to rock the Conservative party. It comes only weeks after William Wragg, another MP who has now lost the Tory whip, claimed he handed over colleagues’ personal numbers to someone who had compromising material on him.

How convenient that this didn't become public until after Prime Minister's Questions.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The oxygen of publicity

The far right thrives on publicity, and of all those who flirt with the far right agenda, Nigel Farage is the biggest publicity junkie of all. So, who in their right mind would give them what they want by shutting down an obscure conference which had until them slipped under the radar?

The Mirror reports that the culprit was Emir Kir, the mayor of Brussels district Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. They say that police attempted to shut down the right-wing political conference in Brussels attended by ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Nigel Farage, with officers entered the venue to serve a court order demanding the National Conservatism (NatCon) event cease on public safety grounds as Farage was making a speech:

The former Ukip leader reportedly told the audience: “I understand the police are very keen to shut this down. Well, in that case they can do it while I’m still on stage.”

Organisers were told to wrap up the conference following an intervention from the local mayor. Emir Kir, mayor of Brussels district Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, said: "In Etterbeek, in Brussels City and in Saint-Josse, the far-right is not welcome." But NatCon said it was "legally challenging" the order as it said there were "no grounds to shut down a gathering of politicians, intellectuals, journalists, students, civic leaders, and concerned citizens".

In a video on social media, Mr Farage said the Brussels authorities were behaving "like the old Soviet Union". Following her speech, Ms Braverman hit out at the "Brussels thought police" and claimed it was proof right-wingers are "winning the arguments".

Ms Braverman used her speech to stick the boot into Rishi Sunak for being too weak to take Britain out of the European Court of Human Rights. She said: “The current UK Government doesn’t have the political will to take on the ECHR and hasn’t laid the groundwork for doing so. And so it’s no surprise that recent noises in this direction are easily dismissed as inauthentic."

The conference had already been forced into several venue changes after a string of hosts cancelled due to pressure from local politicians. This lead organisers to accuse the Brussels mayor Philippe Close of seeking to "cancel" the event. Concerns were also raised over security issues due to protests, with the conference shuttering the main entrance of the venue so people couldn't get in.

In a democracy we tolerate the expression of all views no matter how obnoxious, providing they are legal. Trying to suppress these people just plays into their hands, gives them an element of legitimacy and arguably mirrors the sort of crackdown they may impose on their opponents if they ever got into power.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Same old excuses from new Welsh First Minister

A large number of the commentariat have been shocked by the recent announcement of ninety job losses at the National Museum and Galleries of Wales, but more so by the claim by Museum Wales' chief executive Jane Richardson's that she may be forced to close one of its best known buildings, National Museum Cardiff, because of its deteriorating condition.

Naturally, the new First Minister was approached for a comment and, true to form, he demonstrated his trademark political clay feet by failing to even allay people's concerns. As the BBC report, at his press conference in Ebbw Vale on Monday, Vaughan Gething offered no immediate help for Museum Wales, saying that the potential closure was a consequence of making the NHS a priority after a decade of austerity and that the Welsh government faced "difficult choices":

In a statement released the next day, Museum Wales said it currently has no plans to close National Museum Cardiff.

"However, the deterioration to the roof of the museum is significant," the statement said.

"We're therefore in discussions with Welsh government to secure capital funding specifically for building maintenance."

In a bid to prop up the NHS and Transport for Wales the Welsh government has made cuts to most other areas of its budget.

Museum Wales has had a £3m reduction in its grant, but says that because it continues to incur a year-on-year deficit of £1.5m it had to address a total deficit of £4.5m by the of March.

It has a £90m repair backlog across its sites - the organisation runs seven national museums.

It is the same old story, the same excuses, blame somebody else and moan that there is nothing that can be done. Except in this case, it shouldn't be too difficult to secure the future of the Cardiff museum as the urgent need is for capital investment, not revenue and that can be borrowed, or the Welsh Government can move around their existing programme to provide assistance.

So, why didn't Vaughan Gething say instead that they are looking at that specific aspect of the museum's crisis? 

Already, we are getting indications of a significant fall-off in quality at the top of the Welsh Government. Is Gething starting to look tired already?

Monday, April 15, 2024

Ping pong must continue

I woke up this morning to confident assertions by Tory politicians and the unquestioning affirmation of BBC journalists, that the government's Rwanda bill is going to pass into law this week and that the first flights would be taking off within a month.

My first reaction to this was 'not if the House of Lords have any say in the matter' and then I remmembered that prolonged ping pong between the two Houses of Parliament depends on peers not losing their nerve and that, in turn, relies on Labour being prepared to do what they haven't been willing to countenance so far, use the second chamber to frustrate the will of the House of Commons through persistent and constructive amendments.

This opinion piece in the Guardian by Simon McDonald resonates strongly with my thinking on the matter. He says that peers know the Rwanda bill is flawed and dangerous and suggests that they must use every power to oppose it:

So far this year, the House of Lords has debated the safety of Rwanda bill for more than 40 hours. Immediately before Easter, the Lords passed a second set of seven amendments and returned the bill to the Commons (which had earlier rejected the first set of 10 amendments). The Commons will consider those amendments when parliament returns from its Easter recess tomorrow.

The debate in the Lords has highlighted the fundamental flaws of the legislation, legally and constitutionally. But the government believes that “stopping the boats” is important enough to override the UK’s traditional respect for human rights; it argues that the scheme will have such a powerful deterrent effect that potential asylum seekers won’t cross the Channel.

Deterrence works in one of two ways. The more powerful is the certainty of unpleasant consequences when you do something. The UK-Albania communique, signed in December 2022, falls into that category. Albanians who claim asylum in the UK now know that they will be returned to Albania; they have substantially stopped coming.

Being uncertain that unpleasant consequences will not follow exerts a less powerful but sometimes still effective deterrent effect. The government hopes the Rwanda scheme falls into this category. And yet debate has revealed facts that undermine their case. First, the Home Office minister, Lord Sharpe, revealed that about 55,000 asylum applications were lodged in the last nine months of 2023. Second, ministers failed to deny reports that Rwanda has agreed to take just 300 refugees in the first three years of the scheme’s operation. So, a refugee’s chances of deportation are minimal. Very few potential asylum seekers would be deterred by such odds, having already journeyed thousands of miles and overcome numerous challenges.

The scheme would also be astronomically expensive: the National Audit Office puts the costs at £541m. The cost for each refugee sent to Rwanda would be about £1.8m over three years. As Lord Carlile has observed, it would be cheaper to put them up at the Ritz.

For this doomed venture, the government is asking parliament to pass legislation that is extraordinary in two ways. First, the bill declares as a fact that Rwanda is safe enough to provide shelter for vulnerable people fleeing persecution in their home countries. It is true that Rwanda has seen astonishing progress since the genocide that began 30 years ago this month. But it is not safe. President Kagame does not tolerate dissent. And the best our government can manage when challenged over the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community is that Rwanda does better than its neighbours, some of the world’s most notoriously hostile countries towards LGBTQ+ people. Rwanda is also embroiled in the civil war in eastern Congo; no one in Kinshasa considers Rwanda a safe country to do business with.

Repeatedly, ministers cite the signature of the UK-Rwanda treaty as clinching proof that Rwanda is safe. Kigali has made a series of promises that parliament is invited to take at face value. But signatures are cheap. Naivety is the second worst failing of diplomats. Ronald Reagan was guided by the principle “Trust but verify”. The House of Lords international agreements committee concurs and has set out 10 tests it believes need to be passed before the treaty can safely come into force. The government rejects the need to verify.

Second, the bill states that British courts must accept that Rwanda is safe; courts can neither question that view now nor in the future in the light of new evidence that Rwanda may no longer be safe. From time to time, governments set out controversial facts in legislation. To date, it has been possible to test such facts in court; that happened, for example, with the Asylum and Immigration Act (2004) when the courts upheld the government’s view that Rwanda could be considered a “safe third country”.

This time is different. The courts will be told unequivocally that they cannot question the government’s view. This is unusual but not unprecedented. Lord Hoffmann reminded the Lords of the last such case, the Acte for Poysoning (1531). Henry VIII had a pathological fear of poisoning. Originally the bill had two provisions: to treat all cases of poisoning as treason and to stipulate death by boiling for anyone found guilty. At the last minute, he added a third clause, after two people died following a dinner party given by the bishop of Rochester in February 1531. The bill found Richard Roose, the cook, guilty of poisoning. Royal assent was given on 31 March and Roose boiled to death on 15 April.

Even at the time, parliamentarians were uneasy; the act was used in only one other case before its repeal in the first year of the reign of Henry’s successor. But the stain on the country’s reputation is remembered 493 years later. The government wants to repeat Henry’s error.

The big question now is will the Lords and Labour have the cojones to send this bill into long term ping pong, so that it cannot pass before a general election is held to provide a mandate for it.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Following the money

As is well-known it is not just the Tory Party who give special treatment to their donors, all the parties are at it. As if to remind us of that fact, the Guardian reports that senior members of the shadow cabinet have held a private meeting with a group of financial services companies to discuss the party’s banking policies just weeks after one of the companies donated £150,000 to the party.

The paper says that six senior Labour figures – including the leader, Keir Starmer, the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, and the shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds – attended the meeting in Edinburgh last December, according to an investigation by the website OpenDemocracy:

Companies in attendance included the investment managers Baillie Gifford and Aegon, as well as Bloomberg and NatWest. Bloomberg had just donated its largest sum in years through its trading subsidiary.

According to a now-deleted LinkedIn post by an employee of one of the companies at the meeting, Starmer and his ministerial team offered those in attendance an “exclusive dive” into the launch of its financial services policy.

The revelations have sparked concerns about the possibility the party is allowing its top donors to help shape policy in a way that could further their corporate interests.

Steve Goodrich, the head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, said: “Parties should scrupulously avoid the perception that they’re offering privileged political access in return for cash. The next general election looks set to be the most expensive in modern times, so it’s crucial that politicians of all stripes avoid stumbling into quid pro quos in the rush for funds.”

A Labour party spokesperson said: “It is standard practice for the Labour party to meet with the private sector.”

Bloomberg declined to comment.

Starmer and Reeves have made it a priority to win back support from the City of London in recent years. They have embarked on a series of meetings with business leaders described as the “prawn cocktail offensive 2.0”, in reference to similar efforts by Tony Blair in the 1990s.

As part of that, the party has overhauled its approach to the financial services sector, including appointing a panel of 10 advisers from the City and clarifying that it will not reimpose a cap on bankers’ bonuses.

In December, shadow ministers travelled to Edinburgh to present the new panel and to highlight their commitment to boosting the sector. Tulip Siddiq, the shadow City minister, told the Financial Times before the visit that her party had stopped “sneering at business”.

The OpenDemocracy investigation has found that during the visit, Siddiq and her colleagues attended a roundtable meeting convened by Bloomberg and the lobbying group Sovereign Strategy. Other senior Labour figures who attended included Anas Sarwar, the party’s leader in Scotland, and Daniel Johnson, the member of the Scottish parliament for Edinburgh Southern.

Electoral Commission records show that Bloomberg Trading Facility – the company’s platform for trading financial investment products – gave Labour £150,000 about a month before the meeting, the largest sum given by any Bloomberg company since the Brexit referendum in 2016. That single donation made Bloomberg one of the party’s top corporate donors for the whole year.

One of the lobbyists involved in setting up the meeting posted afterwards on LinkedIn that it had offered “a very thorough discussion on Labour’s vision and priorities for economic growth, outlook for the financial services industry and an exclusive dive into Labour’s launch of the financial services policy review”.

Labour later published a video from the event showing Starmer speaking while his shadow ministers looked on. The party did not say which companies attended the meeting, but the video shows Starmer telling them: “What you now see is a Labour party that is fundamentally different to the Labour party that fought the last general election. Unrecognisably different. And very obviously pro-business.”

The following month, Labour announced its new financial services plan, in which it promised to cut down 10,000 pages of regulations and ruled out a windfall tax on bank profits.

All of this is standard practice in politics nowadays but it is sad that it took a deleted Linkedin post to highlight the meeting. If we can't reform the way political parties finance themselves then we should at least expect some transparency.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

The wrong trousers

Michael Gove has a peculiar penchant for unexpected admissions when we least expect them, so really it should have come as no surprise that he has fessed up to “moral cowardice” during the Brexit campaign after not telling then-prime minister David Cameron about his prominent role in the Leave campaign.

The Guardian reports that the levelling-up secretary made the comments to former chancellor George Osborne on the Political Currency podcast, which is also hosted by former Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls:

Mr Osborne, a steadfast Remainer, said that Mr Gove had promised Lord Cameron he would not take up a “prominent role” in the campaign, but ended up one of the most visible members of the Vote Leave group.

The former chancellor asked Mr Gove: “Did you deceive David? He certainly felt, at the time, betrayed.”

Mr Gove denied that be betrayed Lord Cameron, but added: “As I mentioned, I do think that I could have been clearer earlier.

“And I think that was an example of, on the one hand, cowardice on my part, moral cowardice, on the other hand, a recognition that perhaps there’s this feeling in politics, perhaps something will turn up, perhaps this moment won’t come when we have to make that decision.

“But I think David, entirely fairly, should have expected me to have been more upfront earlier.”

Mr Gove said he ended up “going further” than he thought in the campaign as he ended up in television debates and political shows as a representative for Vote Leave.

Mr Balls asked the levelling up secretary if Mr Cummings’s influence was one reason he became more involved than he thought he would at the start of the Brexit campaign.

Mr Gove responded: “Yes. And again, one of the arguments was ‘if you don’t do this, they’ll have Farage on’, and then with a sweep of his arm pointing to all the people in the office, including people who had been working with me for years, said: ‘You cannot let these people down’.”

He added that unlike Mr Osborne, who stayed up all night to see the result of the referendum, he only knew Vote Leave had won when his wife woke him up the next morning.

“I didn’t wake anyone up, I just went and lay on the sofa wide awake,” he said. “And not only did I think, as I still do, this is a disaster for my country, I just knew it was an absolute disaster for my career, it was basically the end of my political career. It’s definitely, of my political career – of any part of my career – the most traumatic day of my life.”

Mr Cameron and Mr Gove were formerly close friends but fell out in 2016 over Mr Gove’s active role in leading the Brexit campaign against him.

Unfortunately, this mea culpa is entirely misplaced. The real apology he should be offering is to the British people for condemning us to decades of economic stagnation and political isolation in campaigning for Brexit in the first place.

Friday, April 05, 2024

A lucrative route to the House of Lords?

The Mirror highlights a report by Transparency International UK that almost a quarter of people nominated for a seat in the House of Lords over the last 10 years have donated to a political party, new figures reveal today. They say that 68 out of 284 peerage nominations from political parties made between 2013 and 2023 were political donors:

Together the individuals had boosted parties' coffers by a staggering £58million - with 91% of the donations (£53.4million) going to the Tories. Twelve of the "super donors" - representing 92% of all donations - had also provided donations of over £1million, the research reveals.

Transparency International UK says it has become "increasingly clear that the second chamber is being brought into disrepute, in large part due to political patronage, and there is a growing consensus that retaining the status quo is untenable".

The report calls for honours lists for resigning Prime Ministers to be scrapped and an end to their "unfettered power to make appointments" to the Lords. It also demands beefed up powers for the Lords' vetting body to veto nominations "they deem unsuitable or improper".

Chief Executive of Transparency UK Daniel Bruce said: "It should be deeply concerning that all too often those donating large sums of money to our political leaders are then handed jobs for life, making our laws in Parliament. This is inconsistent with the spirit of laws intended to protect the integrity of the upper house."

He added: “With the absence of meaningful checks on political appointments, combined with the limitless ability of the Prime Minister to appoint supporters and allies to the House of Lords, it is now increasingly clear that this patronage is bringing the second chamber into disrepute."

The research comes after Rishi Sunak handed out knighthoods to right-wing Tory MPs in a surprise honours list snuck out before the Easter weekend. There was also a knighthood for mega-donor Mohamed Mansour, a Tory party treasurer, who gave the Conservatives £5million last year.

Of course, this is not just the Tories, it relates to other political parties as well. Surely the time for reform is long past, not to mention abolishing the House of Lords altogether and replacing it with an elected second chamber.

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Brexit strikes again on cost of living

As if things were not hard enough for families struggling to make ends meet, the Guardian reports that  consumers could see a rise in food prices after the UK government announced the introduction of post-Brexit charges on imports of EU food and plant products later this month.

The paper says that the government has published details of fees – known as the common user charge – which will apply to small imports of animal products and plants, such as sausages, cheese and yoghurt, entering the UK from the EU through the port of Dover and through Eurotunnel at Folkestone:

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the fees of up to £145, which come into force on 30 April, will pay for border inspections and improve biosecurity by preventing the import of plant and animal diseases into the UK. The charges apply to imports entering the UK and transits entering and leaving.

Trade groups criticised the charges and said the move would increase business costs and food prices and lead to potentially fewer choices for shoppers.

William Bain, the head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, called the move “extremely disappointing” and said the government had failed to listen to industry concerns.

“The level of import charges shows scant regard to the interests of both businesses and consumers,” he said. “A flat rate fee for bringing most animal and plant products into the UK is a hammer blow for small and medium-sized importers. It’s also deeply concerning for retailers, cafes and restaurants.”

He said importing a small consignment of goods with only five different meat, poultry, egg, milk or some fish products in the medium-risk category meant firms would face a bill of £145 a package under these proposals.

Phil Pluck, the chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, which represents importers of perishable goods, said the charges had been introduced “at the last minute”, which he said gave companies very little time to alter their commercial arrangements with EU customers.

“This is in no way helpful to UK-based importers and the whole EU supply chain. It reinforces the government’s slapdash approach to a vital part of UK plc,” he said.

“Our main concern is that this is now certain to negatively affect food prices. The confirmation that common user charges will apply from 30 April means that UK importers of medium and high-risk goods will have to pass this cost on to either the EU importer, the smaller UK retailer, or the UK consumer.

“Ultimately, this will increase business costs and food prices and potentially lower choices for the shopper.”

Yet another consequence of leaving the EU that pro-Europeans warned about during the referendum, but which warnings were dismissed as scare-mongering by Brexiteers.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Not a level playing field

It was inevitable really that Boris Johnson's promise of levelling up the poorest areas of the UK was going to fall foul of poor administration, political favouritism and bad local choices.

There was always going to be an inadequate amount of money at a UK level to come anywhere near meeting the ambitions set out for the scheme, while given the paucity of resources available to local councils, any programme that relies on an expensive five stage bidding process and match-funding was going to struggle to get off the ground.

Combine that with local political leaders cherry-picking prestigous investments over measures that would make a real difference in terms of skill-building and employment and we have a strategy that has been almost designed to fail.

The Guardian reports that local councils have now woken up to this reality and have demanded an independent review of the levelling up policy, in the face of what they describe as years of hype, disappointment, bureaucratic delay and a “begging bowl” culture:

Levelling up was launched by Johnson after the Conservatives won the 2019 general election, as he promised to boost left-behind parts of the UK by committing billions to regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural assets.

Four years and several funding rounds later, many local politicians are angry and frustrated over their experiences with a complex, demanding, seemingly random bidding system for numerous pots of levelling up funds that have ultimately so far led to little change.

Even more baffling to many is the evolution of a policy that seemingly sought initially to prioritise deprived post-industrial cities of the north and Midlands in the name of reducing regional inequality, but now embraces such relatively affluent places as Cambridge, Buckinghamshire and Canary Wharf in London’s docklands.

“One of our bids was for a housing site in the most deprived part of County Durham – top 10 most deprived areas in the country. How can that not be eligible for levelling up but a historic castle renovation in Kent can? What’s levelling up about that?” said Amanda Hopgood, the Liberal Democrat leader of Durham county council.

Confusingly, three of the top 20 most deprived council areas in England – Middlesbrough, Hastings and Rochdale – were awarded no cash over three rounds of the actual levelling up fund, although they did get cash from different pots under the wider collection of levelling up funds, including the towns fund and the shared prosperity fund (there are now an estimated 36 pots in total.)

The funds have different eligibility, application and reporting requirements, with each bid typically costing councils between £30,000 and £60,000, according to parliament’s spending watchdog. Some councils say they have heeded official feedback on failed bids and invested heavily in the next bid, only to be knocked back again “having done everything they asked”.

Gedling borough council in Nottinghamshire learned in November it had yet again failed with a levelling up fund bid (three neighbouring councils had by that stage been awarded tens of millions between them). It furiously accused the government of “moving the goalposts and leaving councils like us with absolutely nothing, time and time again”.

This month, after years of trying, it finally succeeded – getting £20m from the long-term plan for towns fund. “The begging bowl culture created by this government when it comes to allocating funding to local towns, means this funding has come years later than it should have done,” said Michael Payne, the deputy leader of Gedling borough council.

Hopgood called for an independent review of the government’s “dreadful” handling of a bids process that led to councils wasting scarce resources of time and money. County Durham estimates it spent £1.2m on five bids that were unsuccessful after the government changed the rules on eligibility after they had been submitted.

“The frustration is – you spend your time bidding. You haven’t actually got the money to do the bidding or the resources. The successful bids seem arbitrary. You can’t be certain the outcome related to the quality of the bid. You start to believe its been tweaked politically,” said Graham Chapman, a Nottingham City Labour councillor and vice-chair of the Special Interest Group Of Municipal Authorities.

One council chief executive in the south of England lamented the stop-start short-termism of levelling up, made worse by huge council budget cuts. He pointed to the success of a municipal arts centre planned and built locally under an old-style regeneration scheme before austerity took hold. “We would never build that today because there isn’t the resource, the certainty or the capacity to do it.”

Chapman criticises levelling up’s lack of ambition and focus on physical infrastructure at the expense of tackling skills shortages: “It was the only game in town, but it was naive, totally superficial and underfunded. You don’t turn anything around with a few bob over a few years. You can’t just tart up the town centre and think you are levelling up,” he said.

The sad part of all this is that the scheme's failure for precisely these reasons could have been predicted before it got off the ground. Levelling up has officially joined all the many, many other big ideas of UK Ministers over many decades, in the political dustbin,

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Heartless Tories target homeless

In many ways the controversial Criminal Justice Bill currently being considered by Parliament is classic Tory. It was first introduced when Suella Braverman - who branded homelessness a "lifestyle choice" - was Home Secretary, and includes a clampdown on rough sleepers. It creates new offences which would see people sleeping in doorways and on the streets punished for being a public nuisance.

It is partly reassuring therefore to see the bills most illiberal measures being challenged by a number of Tory backbenchers.

The Mirror reports that the Prime Minister is under growing pressure to abandon proposed new laws which would see homeless people face fines of up to £2,500 or imprisoned. He faces a rebellion from his own benches, while business minister Kevin Hollinrake today refused to publicly back the plan:

Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, who headed a cross-party campaign against previous plans to criminalise homelessness, branded the proposals "heartless". She said: "The government should listen to their own backbenchers and take a compassionate approach to tackling homelessness, instead of stigmatising and criminalising rough sleepers. Sleeping rough is not a lifestyle choice. Ministers should focus on tackling the root causes of this crisis, not scapegoating the victims of it."

Labour Shadow Policing Minister Alex Norris said: “With soaring serious violence, plummeting charging rates and rock bottom levels of confidence in policing the Criminal Justice Bill was a chance to address crucial community safety issues. Instead the Government have chosen to go after homeless people or indeed anyone who smells. These are the twisted priorities of a government out of time.”

Business minister Mr Hollinrake said: "Those things are not within my auspices. I will be interested to see the legislation as it goes through and what the Prime Minister has planned."

Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, the national homelessness charity, urged Home Secretary James Cleverly to "drop these cruel and unnecessary measures and focus on the real solutions" including building more social housing.

Polly Neate, chief executive of charity Shelter, said homelessness was a result of the Government's "catastrophic failure to build enough social homes combined with spiralling private rents". She said: “Parliament must not enact this legislation. Instead of punishing people for being homeless, politicians should be trying to prevent them from ending up on the streets."

This bill should never have seen the light of day in the first place. It is to the Tory;s shame that it is being taken seriously at all.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Tory Tax Spin Unravels

Any suggestion that the Tories may have stolen the initiative from Labour on Non-Dom tax status has quickly dissipated as details of the Chancellor's proposals emerged.

The Guardian reports that Conservative plans to abolish non-dom status are riddled with loopholes worth hundreds of millions of pounds for the wealthiest people in the country.

The paper says that the policy, announced by Jeremy Hunt in this month’s budget, could theoretically see Rishi Sunak’s family benefit from tax savings of nearly £250m.

They add that the findings will renew focus both on Sunak’s own wealth – his most recent tax return showed a personal income of £2.2m – and the non-dom status of his wife, Akshata Murty, who owns a £690m stake in Infosys, the IT multinational founded by her father.

In 2022, it emerged that Murty claimed non-domiciled tax status, which allows people to avoid paying UK tax on overseas earnings and had potentially saved her up to £20m. Murty subsequently declared that she would pay UK tax on overseas income, but did not give up her non-dom status:

Under the scheme announced by Hunt, from next year people can avoid taxes only in the first four years of residency in the UK, compared with the previous 15-year threshold. However, Labour says a detailed examination of the plans show a series of ways in which people with existing non-dom status could limit their tax bills.

The most lucrative loophole is a provision that gives non-doms until April 2025 to put overseas funds in a trust, after which they are liable for UK income and capital gains taxes, but exempt from inheritance tax.

Murty holds a 1.05% stake in Infosys, which is valued at about £58bn. If she took advantage of the trust loophole, this could save the family nearly £250m, based on the current inheritance tax rate of 40%.

Andy Summers, associate professor of law at LSE and an expert on high-end tax policy, said it seemed likely that many non-doms would set up trusts, if they had not done so already. “Non-doms will already have most of their assets abroad rather than in the UK because of the incentives they have under the current regime,” he said.

“Putting these in a trust has costs in terms of just the lawyers’ fees and so on, but it doesn’t have any tax disadvantages under the new regime. So, you’d be kind of mad not to do it.”

Another tax expert, Arun Advani, associate professor of economics at Warwick University, said giving people a year to set up a trust was “ages in tax planning time”.

He queried why the trust loophole – if it was intended as an incentive for people to bring wealth into the UK – is time-limited until 2025: “If they think that to do otherwise would damage the economy because people won’t come here, then why is this only a problem for the next year?”

Another element of the new regime that could potentially benefit Sunak’s family is a provision to give a 50% tax discount on any overseas income and capital gains in the first year.

While Murty has said she will pay UK tax on such income, Labour has calculated that this could theoretically save her £3.75m, half the expected £7.5m expected income next year from dividends on her Infosys stake.

Proof that it is always worth looking hard at whatever politicians promise us.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?