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Sunday, January 21, 2018

CBI adds to pressure on the single market

Any illusion that Theresa May might wish to conjure up that she has the support of business in her pursuit of a hard Brexit has been quickly dissipated this weekend with reports of a forthcoming speech by Carolyn Fairbairn, who is head of the CBI employers’ organisation, suggesting that Britain should stay in a customs union with the EU long after Brexit, even if that means that the UK could not strike its own trade deals with third countries:

In a challenge to Eurosceptic cabinet ministers, Ms Fairbairn will argue that Britain should remain in a customs union with the EU until there is proof that new trade deals with the US and other countries will outweigh a potential loss of business with the bloc.

She will also say that retaining a customs union with the EU would “go a long way towards solving the border problem in Ireland”, arguing that it is part of a “practical, real-world answer” to the problems thrown up by Brexit.

“Remaining a member of a customs union for as long as it serves us to do so is consistent with the result of the [Brexit] referendum and would be good for EU firms too,” Ms Fairbairn will say in a speech at Warwick university.

The mantra that we can stay in the single market whilst leaving the EU has become the focus of disagreement for Brexiteers and Remainers alike. Even those who do not want us to leave the EU have argued that remaining part of the single market is a compromise, which squares the circle of what is good for the UK with the expressed wish of the British people to have nothing more to do with our European neighbours.

On the other side of the argument we have the unlikely pairing of Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, who have stated that it is not possible to both leave the EU and remain in the single market. To an extent they are right. The choice is actually very much a black and white one.

If we are going to remain a member of the single market, paying into EU coffers so as to continue to have full access to financial markets, complete with free movement of goods, services and labour, then why leave the EU in the first place? At least by staying put we would have a say on the rules we are signing up to.

The real debate is not about some grubby compromise over the single market, but whether we want to remain a meaningful member of a European Union, which forms our biggest overseas market, has brought thousands of jobs to these shores and has effectively contributed to over seventy years of peace on the continent.

That is a choice that should be put to the British people once a deal has been struck for our exit. The final decision must rest with the electorate but it should be an informed choice with clear options, not the wishy-washy undefined future we voted on back in 2016.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

How are the DUP spending their windfall?

According to i-News, the first tranche of the £1 billion secured by the DUP as part of its deal with the Tories is already being spent, despite the fact that Parliament has not authorised the expenditure as the Government said would be necessary.

The news site has been told by the Treasury that the Confidence and Supply Agreement is subject to the full authorisation of the UK Parliament through supply estimates which will take place soon. However, in late November, the Department of Finance said that £20 million “is being drawn down now from the Treasury” and on Monday the department confirmed that the money was being allocated to health and education to be spent before March 31 but that it would not be drawing down the additional £30 million which the Government had offered under the DUP agreement:

Rather than authorising expenditure of the money prior to it being spent, the Government is planning to ask Parliament to approve the expenditure after some of it has already left the Government account – effectively a retrospective process.

In other words there will not be a vote on the deal, but the money is likely to be bundled in with wider public spending authorisation in the Spring Supplementary Estimates, a tidying-up exercise which regularises public spending in the final few weeks of the financial year.

This will make the job of scrutiny very difficult, minimise the chances of the opposition being able to focus in on the deal when debating the estimates and effectively undermine transparency. The fact that even a small part of the money will have been spent prior to the vote is a snub to the Parliamentary system.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Reality bites on Brexit

Promises made during the referendum campaign that it would be possible for the UK to have its cake and eat it by leaving the EU whilst at the same time accessing all the benefits of membership, were very swiftly disabused yesterday by the French President.

During his visit to Sandhurst Military Training College, Emmanuel Macron rejected the idea of a tailored Brexit deal for the City, insisting Britain will not be allowed full access to European Union markets, including financial services, unless it pays into the EU budget and accepts all its rules.

Financial services is one of the sectors in which France hopes to seize an increased share of the EU market after Brexit. City firms are concerned about new trade barriers, including the loss of so-called “passporting” rights, that allow them to operate throughout the EU from headquarters in London.

Brexit secretary David Davis has said he is seeking a “Canada plus plus plus” arrangement, based on the EU-Canada trade treaty, but with additional access for services, however Macron very quickly rejected that option. The French President said the UK cannot be offered the same access to the single market that membership allows: “There should be no hypocrisy in this respect, or it would not work and we would destroy the single market.”

This is the reality that the Brexiteers have refused to acknowledge. Losing full access to the single market for financial services will see hundreds of jobs decamping to the continent and an adverse impact on our balance of payments.

If we have to pay in and accept the rules of the single market to counter that then the question arises of why leave in the first place. This is one more consideration that needs to be put to the electorate as part of a second referendum.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Debunking Boris

The claim by Boris Johnson earlier this week, that Brexit can deliver even more than the widely debunked £350m a week to NHS was not just ludicrous, but completely misleading. As statisticians have said, the original claim ignores a rebate and EU funding of projects in this country.

Tellingly, the Foreign Secretary is still referring to a gross figure to back up his new fantasy, once more ignoring the flow of money into the UK from Europe. I am not the only person who is sceptical about Boris' motives and his dubious assertions.

As the Independent reports, Sarah Wollaston, who is a senior conservative MP and the chair of the House of Commons Health Committee, has said the Foreign Secretary’s use of the false statistic was “a disgrace” and “a deliberate deception”:

Dr Wollaston, a former GP, said Mr Johnson “should stop using that figure”.

She told BBC Five Live: “I feel it was entirely a deliberate deception [during the referendum campaign]. They knew that figure was incorrect but I had people repeatedly saying to me, ‘Well all that matters is that people remember a big number’.

“I found that shocking and I think it’s absolutely shocking that there are people continuing to use it. She added: “[Mr Johnson] should stop using it. It’s a disgrace, and I feel very strongly about that.

“We need to be very careful about the way we use data and that goes for all of us in public life.”

Ms Wollaston is absolutely right of course, but there is a wider point here around collective responsibility and the duty of Government Ministers not to mislead the public on key issues.

It is fairly clear that Boris Johnson can now get away with virtually anything within the government. Theresa May appears to have no authority over him and lacks the ability to rein him in. However, there is a difference between campaigning as a backbench MP in a referendum campaign and making promises as a Minister.

People will expect the UK Government to deliver on Boris' promise of an extra £350m a week for the NHS because as he is in the cabinet, he will be considered to have established all the facts before spouting off.

The fact that the Prime Minister has not contradicted him adds authority to this alternative truth. If this government continues to mislead in this way they may come back down to reality with a very painful bump.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Labour civil war moves to the constituencies

For all intents and purposes, the struggle for control of the Labour Party was over once Momentum secured an effective majority on the party's National Executive Committee, however the real contest has just begun.

As the Guardian reports, the direction of any future Labour Government depends on the make-up of the Parliamentary Party and it is in the constituencies that battle lines are being drawn. They say that Labour-supporting trade unions are quietly affiliating scores of branches to the party in key constituencies in a bid to influence future reselection battles:

In what one senior Labour figure called a “cold war arms race”, the GMB union has been encircling supportive MPs with newly affiliated branches, all of which would have a vote in any “trigger ballot” to reselect the sitting candidate. Decisions to affiliate branches are taken at regional level.

Several MPs have also told the Guardian that Unite, whose leader Len McCluskey is a staunch supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, is actively signing up new, small-scale branches – although Unite denies the claims.

This unspoken civil war is set to intensify over the next few years as local parties decide who will represent them at the next General Election. If the Corbyn project is to succeed then he needs to have MPs sympathetic to his point of view so as to elect his chosen successor. This is when things really do start to get interesting.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Time to take waste reduction seriously

One of the problems we face in trying to live more sustainably is that when managing waste we are starting too far down the hierarchy.

Effectively there are a number of ways to reduce the amount of stuff we send to landfill and conserve resources which would otherwise be diverted into cosmetic packaging. At the top of that hierarchy is the need to prevent the waste in the first place by finding other ways of doing things. Below that is minimisation, reuse, recycling, energy recovery and disposal.

Most government initiatives focus on getting people to recycle their waste, whilst the development of facilities to burn waste products to generate energy is also a popular option. I would suggest that a far more sustainable and useful role for Ministers would be in preventing and minimising the waste in the first place, especially when it comes to packaging.

As ever it takes the private sector to lead the way, with the very welcome initiative from Iceland in seeking to become the first major retailer to commit to eliminating plastic packaging for all its own brand products within five years to help end the "scourge" of plastic pollution.

As the Independent reports they plan to replace plastic with packaging that includes paper and pulp trays and paper bags, which would be recyclable through domestic waste collections or in-store recycling facilities.

Surely it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility for others to follow suit or for government to consolidate initiatives they are already considering on reducing plastic by legislating to force through a revolution of this sort.

I am positive that the hard-pressed householder would welcome assistance from Ministers in living sustainably, instead of having to bear the burden of recycling initiatives all by themselves.

Monday, January 15, 2018

That awkward moment when your Brexiteer PM tries to claim credit for an EU initiative

There is some controversy over recent changes to terms of payment which bans retailers, airlines and other businesses from hitting shoppers with hidden surcharges when they use credit or debit cards. These surcharges can be as high as 20 per cent and costs consumers around £166m each year.

The downside is that retailers will now try to recover the cost by raising their prices and this will hit people who tend not to use credit cards for purchases.

The reality of course is that as a society we are addicted to credit and that the vast majority of people will use credit cards for major purchases, not least because there is an insurance element attached to these transactions. So balance this is a development to be welcomed. Which of course is what the Prime Minister did.

As the Independent reports, the Prime Minister tweeted: "From today we're banning hidden charges for paying with your credit or debit card – a move that will help millions of people avoid rip-off fees when spending their hard-earned money." The only problem being that it was not her that did this, it was the EU, that institution she is trying to take us out of:

Green MEP Molly Scott Cato told The Independent: "In spite of her rhetoric about fairness Theresa May is failing to give credit where it is due in suggesting that it is her government that is banning credit card charges.

"The truth is that it was my committee in the European Parliament that fought for and won the cap on credit card fees paid by many retailers which will mean lower charges for UK consumers. To achieve this we had to battle against national governments as well as the finance lobby. "It’s also clear that it was the power of 500 million consumers that enabled us to put pressure on the credit card companies. Brexit Britain will be much weaker and its consumers more vulnerable to financial rip-offs."

Labour MEP Clare Moody also criticised the claims, addressing Ms May on Twitter: "No, you haven’t. This is an EU initiative from which all EU citizens will enjoy, not instigated by UK Government." Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said: “Once again the Tories are claiming a popular policy that they had nothing to do with."

“These new rules will make things easier, cheaper and more efficient for consumers. Once again EU rules are helping people in their everyday lives. Unfortunately this doesn’t match Theresa May’s spin so instead the Tories are lying to the public.

“This is a welcome change that gives more freedom and flexibility to people in their everyday lives.”

Perhaps Theresa May would like to reconsider her determination to take us out of the European Community after all.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Should Norway just grin and bear it?

I suppose that in a week in which the President of the United States has branded dozens of countries as 'shitholes', a minor spat between Norway and Australia can easily be ignored. And so it would be, if it wasn't so amusing.

The origin of the non-row lies in official advice given by the Australian Government to its citizens thinking of journeying to the northern reaches of Europe. As the Telegraph reports, Smart Traveller, which appears to be an official Australian Government travel advice website, advises that there 'are risks for travellers to the arctic archipelago of Svalbard relating to avalanches, glacier accidents, boating incidents and polar bear encounters. The level of our advice has not changed. Exercise normal safety precautions in Norway.'

Norway, however is having none of it. They tweeted in reply: 'Thank you #Australia for your concern. We can assure you that in mainland Norway all polar bears are stuffed and poses only limited risk.' and followed it up with this:

Of course Australia was actually referring to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, better known by its Dutch name Spitsbergen, meaning "jagged mountains". These islands lie in the Arctic Ocean, north of mainland Europe, about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole.

As Wikipedia records, the islands were first taken into use as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, after which they were abandoned. Coal mining started at the beginning of the 20th century, and several permanent communities were established.

The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 recognizes Norwegian sovereignty, and the 1925 Svalbard Act made Svalbard a full part of the Kingdom of Norway. They also established Svalbard as a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone.

It goes on to say: 'Svalbard is a breeding ground for many seabirds, and also features polar bears, reindeer, the Arctic fox, and certain marine mammals. Seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves cover two-thirds of the archipelago, protecting the largely untouched, yet fragile, natural environment. Approximately 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers, and the islands feature many mountains and fjords.'

So technically both countries are right. There are no live polar bears on the Norwegian mainland, but there are in Svalbard. Still, the publicity will not have done Norway any harm.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Farage has his pay docked

There are some who would suggest that his contribution and that of his party to the European Parliament does not justify the full £101,808 a year salary, but Nigel Farage and his fellow UKIP-refuseniks have been elected and they are accountable to their electorate not the likes of me and other pro-Europeans.

However, as the Guardian reports, Farage has finally got his comeuppance after a European parliament investigation alleged he had misspent public funds intended for staffing his office. As a result, he has been docked half his monthly salary.

The paper says that the former UKIP leader, who recently bemoaned being “53, separated and skint”, will lose €40,000 (£35,500) in total after European parliament auditors concluded he had misspent that amount of EU funds:

Financial controllers have been investigating the role of Christopher Adams, who was hired by Farage to work in the European parliament as his assistant.

Auditors suspended Adams’ contract last year, because they were not convinced he was working for Farage on European parliamentary matters. Although paid as Farage’s assistant, Adams was also the national nominating officer for Ukip, where he was described as one of the party’s “key people”.

“Since 1 January [2018] the European parliament has withheld 50% in order to recoup the €40,000 due in salary that was paid to Christopher Adams and which cannot be proved by Farage,” a parliamentary source told the Guardian.

Docking Farage’s pre-tax MEP salary of €8,484 a month would mean he would have repaid what officials call his “debt to the EU” by October 2018.

UKIP have used the European Parliament as a means of funding their political activities for too long. This sanction is welcome.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Is another referendum now more likely?

The sudden conversion of Nigel Farage to the idea of a second referendum on whether we should leave the European Union or not, backed by the co-founder of the Leave campaign, Arron Banks, has certainly animated many Remainers. Even Sir Nick Clegg tweeted, 'I agree with Nigel'.

Nigel Farage's rationalisation for his U-turn is that another Brexit vote would lead to a more decisive victory for the leave campaign and silence remain supporters for a generation. My view is that the result of a second plebiscite would be close, could go either way and could still leave the issue unresolved. Timing is also crucial.

As the Guardian says, the natural time for a second EU referendum would be a poll on whether to accept any deal that May negotiates with Brussels before the date of Brexit in March 2019, or whether the UK should leave without an agreement if she fails to secure one. They suggest that if parliament were to vote against May’s deal with the EU, it could provoke another referendum on the issue or a general election in which Brexit was the central issue.

Personally, I would prefer a referendum because General Elections are rarely decided on single issues and do not as a rule provide clear mandates for constitutional change.

The most interesting part of this little bit of mischief making by Farage is the impact it will have on the Labour Party. The Guardian believes that growing support for another referendum could fuel divisions within Labour. The party leadership currently maintains that there is no need for another popular vote. That is a contrast to some of its pro-EU backbenchers.

Farage has opened the door for a U-turn by Jeremy Corbyn. It is time he showed some leadership, acknowledged his role as an opposition party instead of propping up the Tories and came out for a confirmatory referendum that might give us the opportunity to stay in the EU.

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