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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Labour's Brexit divisions widen after Lord's vote

Anybody who doubts that Labour is committed to a hard Brexit, which will take the UK out of the single market would soon have been disabused of that uncertainty after last night's vote in the House of Lords.

In an act of craven capitulation, the main opposition party in the UK Parliament discarded its responsibility to oppose and fight for the best interests of the country and voted with the Tories to leave us economically and politically isolated in Europe.

As the Independent reports, peers voted against an amendment to the Brexit Bill demanding the UK retains its membership of the European single market. They add that the 229 to 136 vote, a majority of 163, exposed deep divisions within Labour.

Lord Mandelson and former Neath MP, Lord Hain were the Labour heavyweights pushing for the second chamber to accept the amendment yet they were left high and dry by their own party as the Labour front bench led their peers into the 'no' lobby.

Meanwhile unrest within the Parliamentary Labour Party grew as Jeremy Corbyn failed to attend their weekly meeting. The Independent says that Labour MPs have expressed anger at their leader's non-attendance at a meeting used to dissect the party’s historic loss in Copeland last week, with one accusing the party leader of a “total dereliction of duty”.

They add that frustration was also vented by one MP at the meeting after an image emerged, reportedly showing two of Mr Corbyn’s allies, Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti, enjoying a beverage in Westminster while the meeting was underway.

With Corbyn likely to stay in post, and with his party failing to do its job of opposing the government, it is little wonder that many Labour MPs are angry.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Is the M4 relief road on a journey to nowhere?

My objections to the M4 relief road around Newport have been stated over and over again, on this blog, in party conferences and in the Welsh Assembly chamber. I have five basic concerns:

1. The environmental damage; the road will pass through five SSSIs, add to to air pollution and disturb a number of valuable ecological areas;

2. The long term impact on traffic: like every new road it will fill up within years and will soon be featuring on every traffic bulletin for delays and accidents. It will not be long before people are calling for yet another relief road.

3. The cost: £1.1 billion is a huge amount of money to spend on a road, especially when other parts of Wales need it more. If we are going to spend that sum of money then it needs to be invested in the Metro system that will take traffic off the road and be better for the environment.

4. It is Cardiff-centric: As the Welsh Government's own analysis shows, Cardiff would be the biggest beneficiary, with Gross Domestic Product boosted by £5.8m a year by 2037 and £8.3m a year by 2051 (figures in 2010 prices). Newport would also receive an uplift amounting to £7.3m a year by 2051, whilst annual GDP in Rhondda Cynon Taf would increase by £1.1m. In contrast, Swansea, Bridgend, the Vale of Glamorgan and Neath Port Talbot would each get an uplift of between £300,000 and £800,000 a year by 2051.

5. It does not tackle the worse congestion on the M4 which is actually between junctions 37 and 43, where the road drops to two lanes causing chaos during rush hour. Of course that section of the M4 is not near Cardiff and has no impact on the economy of the Welsh capital so it is ignored.

Today's Western Mail has managed to conjure up a sixth concern, quoting an official analysis which demonstrates that the planned new section of the M4 at Newport would deliver bigger economic benefits to England than to the most deprived counties in south Wales.

They say that Bristol would benefit significantly from the new motorway, to the tune of £3.6m a year by 2037 and growing to £6.1m by 2051. South Gloucestershire, north of Bristol, would see agglomeration boost its GDP by £4m a year by 2037, falling back to £3m a year in 2051, while North Somerset’s GDP would be boosted by £4m by 2051.

Those three English counties account for 32% of the total agglomeration benefit by 2037, rising to 36% by 2051.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats, like a number of other parties have opposed the Welsh Government's preferred black route. preferring the alternative blue route instead. However, that alternative is also expensive and would have a much reduced impact on traffic congestion. It would fill up more quickly because it would be constructed over existing roads and have to absorb existing non-motorway traffic.

That is why I would argue that the Metro is the only way forward. Instead of accommodating more cars on the M4 we should be giving people viable alternatives, reduce pollution, protect our vital green spaces and work towards the sustainable future the Welsh Government claims to want.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Liberal Democrats to fight Tory plans to restrict disability benefits

A Tory bill that will severely restrict disability benefits and which could potentially deprive 160,000 people of state helpis being strongly opposed by the Liberal Democrats in the Lords.

As the Independent reports, the introduction of the bill follows a written statement to the House of Commons by Conservative disability minister Penny Mordaunt that the Government will introduce emergency legislation to tighten the criteria of Personal Independence Payments (PIP) to disabled people after they were told to cover a broader spectrum of claimants, including those with mental health problems:

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) was advised to expand the reach of the PIP scheme by two separate tribunals to give claimants more points for “psychological stress”.

The PIP scheme assesses claims on a points based for two different categories – “daily living” and “mobility” – and claimants must score at least eight points to receive a basic payment and 12 points to receive an enhanced rate.

It is designed to cover the extra costs that come with being disabled, such as specially adapted aids, cars and appliances, and measure how a disability affects a person’s life rather than the disability itself, but critics say the criteria is too strict.

But the first tribunal ruled that claimants should receive more points for “mobility” if they suffer from “overwhelming psychological distress” when travelling alone.

The second tribunal recommended that people be given more points for “daily living” if they have to take medication and monitor a health condition.

Ms Mordaunt said urgent reforms were needed to “restore the original aim of the benefit”, citing concerns that otherwise the Government would end up paying £3.7bn extra in PIP payments by 2022.

She also insisted no claimant would see a reduction in the amount of PIP previously awarded.

That assurance does not convince the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Work and Pensions, Baroness Cathy Bakewell, who has said that the plans are “outrageous” and who accused the Conservatives of treating disabled people with “total contempt”.

She has quite rightly said that the Government should have accepted the decision of the Tribunals and that Ministers are using these decisions as an excuse to further restrict access to benefits for disabled people.

Baroness Bakewell has pledged that the Liberal Democrats will fight these proposals which will impact drastically on the lives of vulnerable people.

It was proposals like these that the Liberal Democrats consistently blocked when in coalition between 2010 and 2015.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Is the USA becoming a land of censorship, prejudice and paranoia?

Every politician at some stage or another has a beef about a particular journalist, a publication or a media outlet. It is part of the job. You shrug your shoulders and carry on, because effective scrutiny, no matter how inaccurate you think it is  or how partisan, is what makes our democracy tick. And let's face it, the journalist is just doing his or her job.

It is when a politician starts to use their position to penalise those who don't agree with them that we really need to worry. A coup d'etat starts with the TV and radio stations.  Dictators control the media so as to suppress dissent.

In a democracy those who are obsessed with command and control, who do not feel secure in their position may try to browbeat the media into being a more malleable beast. Normally it stops there but yesterday, the US President and his staff crossed a line.

I like the USA. I have been there a few times and have always found its citizens to be open and welcoming. Admittedly, I have been stopped and searched at airports and ferry ports, but that was in 2004 in Boston at the same time the Democrats were having their convention.

I did not like their immigration control. I felt that it was intrusive, overly-bureaucratic and just a little paranoid. But then again it is their right as a country to check on the credentials of those entering.

Goodness only knows what it is like now, after Trump's executive order and incidents such as that of a Swansea based Teacher being forced from an airplane in Reykjavik because he is a Muslim.

The country that welcomed so many immigrants over the last three centuries and which is built on the skills and passion of those people, many fleeing persecution in their own homeland, is rapidly becoming less and less friendly as it retreats into its shell. It is not a country I want to go back to, at least not whilst Trump and his ilk are at the helm.

And then there is the constant barracking of the press, accusing them of reporting lies and false news because the Trump administration is meeting resistance, because it is hitting the brick wall that are the checks and balances built into the constitution, because the President's own fast and loose way with facts are being exposed and because the contradictions at the heart of this new Presidency are being reported on.

Yesterday, the White House barred several news organizations from an off-camera press briefing, handpicking a select group of reporters that included a number of conservative outlets friendly toward Donald Trump to attend instead. The excluded organisations included such respected institutions as the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, the BBC, and the Daily Mail.

Conservative publications such as Breitbart News, the One America News Network and the Washington Times were allowed into the meeting, as well as TV networks CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC. To their credit the Associated Press and Time were invited but boycotted the briefing.

All of this followed in the wake of Donald Trump once again declaring that much of the media was “the enemy of the American people”. It is difficult to know which to feel the most disgusted about, the fact that the US President is trying to manipulate and censor the media, or at the journalists who turned up for the briefing irrespective of that power-play.

This development strikes at the very heart of America's democratic traditions. The media may at times be irascible, irritating, biased and a real pain in the backside but they are integral to the freedoms that Americans enjoy. Their role is to scrutinise and in that respect they are the people's friends.

If ordinary Americans are not concerned by these latest developments and the tone and the direction that Trump's administration is going in then they do not know their history. These are worrying times for one of the world's biggest democracy.

The jury is still out as to what sort of America this censoring, prejudicial, paranoiac will leave for his successor. Let us hope that it is one that is still recognisable as the democratic and welcoming country that many of its citizens and their ancestors chose as their home not so many years ago.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Another good night for the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats were always going to get squeezed out of contention in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland because of where they were starting from and the high profile publicity for the main challengers in each contest, UKIP and the Tories respectively.

Nevertheless, they increased both their share of the vote, the number of votes cast for them on reduced turnouts and their final position in both contests. In Copeland we finished third by nearly doubling our vote share from 2015, whilst in Stoke, the Lib Dems secured a 5.7% uplift in their vote.

The other story of the night though was in the local council by-elections where the Liberal Democrats continued their remarkable run of successes, gaining two seats from the Tories.

In the Charterlands ward of South Hams the result was LIB DEM: 46.1% (+46.1) CON: 39.3% (-25.0) LAB: 10.7% (+10.7) GRN: 3.9% (-15.6), whilst in Barton in Kettering it was LIB DEM: 57.0% (+57.0) CON: 29.8% (-19.3) UKIP: 9.4% (-14.1) GRN: 3.7% (-3.5). Both gains.

The Liberal Democrats have now made 30 net gains in local council elections since 6th May 2016.

In contrast, last night's results were a big disappointment for UKIP. They threw everything at the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat including fielding their leader as candidate in an area which voted overwhelmingly for Leave last June. However, they hardly made a dent in changing the outcome. The only way for them now is down.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

What will be the impact of Brexit on the NHS?

I am sorry to keep harking on about the extra £350m a week promised by the Brexiteers to our NHS but actually it is very important. It is possibly one of the chief reasons the UK voted to leave the EU. It is a significant promise that looks increasingly unlikely to be met.

The real damage to our NHS from Brexit remains with staffing as is illustrated by this Guardian story. They report on a survey by the BMA which reveals that about 12,000 doctors trained in European countries could quit the UK because they feel less welcome following the Brexit vote.

The BMA's research leads them to conclude that roughly two in five doctors who qualified in European Economic Area countries are considering leaving the UK in light of the referendum result:

“These are the people who staff our hospitals and GP surgeries, look after vulnerable patients in the community, and conduct vital medical research to help save lives. Many have dedicated years of service to healthcare in the UK, so it’s extremely concerning that so many are considering leaving,” said Dr Mark Porter, the BMA’s council chair.

“At a time when the NHS is already at breaking point and facing crippling staff shortages, this would be a disaster and threaten the delivery of high-quality patient care. But this isn’t just about numbers. The quality of patient care is improved where doctors have diverse experiences and expertise,” he added.

Quite. Even if we did get the extra money, and that looks more and more unlikely, we would be struggling to find the staff to fill the posts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Is Putin haunting our democracy?

Following the revelations of Russian interference in the US Presidential election I was a bit startled today to see in the Independent a former Minister allege that there is “clear evidence” that Russia interfered directly in UK elections.

They say that Rhondda MP, Chris Bryant has told Parliament some of the top-level decisions affecting security in Britain have been “compromised by Russian infiltration”. The former Europe minister’s comments came after it emerged that political parties in the UK have approached the security agencies for help following a cyber attack during the 2015 British general election:

“There is now clear evidence of Russian direct, corrupt involvement in elections in France, in Germany, in the United States of America, and I would argue also in this country,” said Mr Bryant.

“Many believe that some of the highest level decisions affecting security in the United Kingdom, in Germany, in France and in the United States of America are now compromised by Russian infiltration.”

The head of the UK’s new National Cyber Security Centre, Ciaran Martin, said that “informal” talks had been held with the parties and a programme to protect their sensitive online information will be put in place in the near future.

There had been persistent and rising reports of the Kremlin’s interference in the West’s political system using cyber attacks, including the hacking of the Democratic Party emails as part of an alleged campaign by Vladimir Putin’s government to help Donald Trump win the US presidential elections.

There are also fears that coming elections in Holland, France and Germany, with right-wing populist parties which have varying degrees of Russian support, may be vulnerable.

Emmanuel Macron, the favourite to become the next French president, has also accused Russia and its state-owned media of using hacking and fake news to interfere with the French presidential race.

These claims of interference have been rejected by the Kremlin.

There has been much talk about how social media and on-line tools have transformed the way that political parties campaign. However, if these allegatoins are correct the biggest influence of new technology on elections is much more insidious and a threat to the democratic process itself.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Donald Trump and the Swedish question

The so-called leader of the United States has now qualified his statement regarding immigrant-related incidents in Sweden but nobody is any clearer.

According to the Independent, Mr Trump says that he was referring to a story broadcast by Fox News. The TV channel ran a clip of a film by Ami Horowitz on Friday that alleged Sweden had seen a surge in gun violence and rape following an influx of immigrants.

The only problem is that the facts in that film are in dispute. The paper says that Mr Horowitz's documentary has been criticised for being riddled with inaccuracies. One Swedish terrorism expert told them that the film "grossly exaggerated" the amount of crime in the country and wrongly conflated drug violence in Swedish cities with crime perpetrated by refugees.

Of course these links are debated on the media and elsewhere all the time, but that does not make it right that the US President should quote these disputed allegations as facts. Sweden, and everybody else should expect that Donald Trump would set a higher standard.

Many of Trump's supporters are now accusing the media of covering up the facts. It is not clear how many of those supporters know where Sweden is never mind the truth over their crime rate. So what are the facts?

According to this site, crime levels in the United States are 28% more than in Sweden. The USA tops the league table for violent crime, three times more than Sweden and the murder rate in the US is five times that of Sweden.

Perhaps Donald Trump should put his own house in order before seizing on disputed documentary films so as to distract from his own problems.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Who is fooling who over Article 50?

On the BBC yesterday Liz Truss was anxious to underline that once Article 50 has been invoked then there is no turning back.

As the Independent reports, the Justice Secretary told viewers that there is no prospect of Britain staying in the European Union after triggering negotiations on Brexit. But is that true or are the government trying to manufacture a no-win situation for those who believe that, the Theresa May's version of hard Brexit is inappropriate, that we should stay in the single market and that the British people need to have the final say on whatever deal is negotiated?

Like the referendum outcome itself, this is not a black and white issue and Ministers would do well not to suggest that it is. The paper says that Liz Truss's claims are a direct contradiction of the views of Lord Kerr, the former UK diplomat who, in his role as Secretary General of the European Convention, wrote the laws that include Article 50:

Mr Kerr said last year: “It is not irrevocable – you can change your mind while the process is going on.

“During that period, if a country were to decide actually we don’t want to leave after all, everybody would be very cross about it being a waste of time.

“They might try to extract a political price but legally they couldn't insist that you leave.”

Lord Kerr's advice should give sustenance to those who want the final deal to be subject to another referendum.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Another Paul Nuttall claim is debunked

As if the Hillsborough fiasco was not enough. the Independent reports yet more controversy regarding some of the claims on the UKIP leader's website.

The paper says that Paul Nuttall is facing fresh allegations about his honesty after he wrongly claimed he was a board member of a training charity:

In September 2009, an article published on Mr Nuttall’s website stated he had accepted an invitation to join the board of the North West Training Council (NWTC).

It quoted Mr Nuttall as saying: “If facilities like this existed for youngsters when I was at school, many of my classmates would have kept on the straight and narrow.

He then said: “I was very impressed by my visit to the NWTC and have nothing but praise for their contribution. They are doing a first-class job and I am thrilled at the honour of being a board member.”

However, the organisation’s chief executive, Paul Musa, said that, while Nuttall had visited the NWTC several years ago, he had never served on the board.

Mr Musa told The Guardian: “Mr Nuttall was never invited to become a board member of NWTC as this would need to be a directive of the NWTC board, who he never met.”

The Ukip’s leader’s name does not appear on any documentation filed by the NWTC with either Companies House or the Charity Commission, the paper reported.

Mr. Nuttall claims that he has been the victim of a smear campaign, but it seems that he is his own worse enemy.

Being a party leader and the candidate in a high profile by-election brings with it enhanced scrutiny, something that he does not appear to have been prepared for.

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