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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Labour frontbench unite with Tories in pro-Brexit vote

The Independent reports that John McDonnell and fellow Opposition frontbenchers joined with the Government to vote down a Labour backbench Brexit proposal designed to protect the customs union.

They say that the Shadow Chancellor was among the 18 Labour MPs, 283 Conservatives, eight DUP and two independents who defeated an amendment to the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill, which aims to put in law a new post-Brexit customs regime:

MPs heard the Bill will pave the way for domestic legislation that will enable the UK to charge customs duty on goods - including those imported from the EU - and outline how customs checks will be made.

Labour former frontbencher Mr Murray's amendment sought to exempt EU goods from the new regime, and was supported during the vote by Tory rebels Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke.

It has long been known that despite harvesting millions of anti-Brexit votes in the General Election, Labour are in reality committed to leaving the EU. This vote confirms that, and further shows that the opposition front bench also have problems with us remaining in or wedded to the single market.

Labour have betrayed those voters who entrusted them to look after their economic interests and reneged on their role as a functional Official Opposition.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Time to act on the independent adjudication of the Welsh Ministerial code

'It is wholly unacceptable for the First Minister to be the sole decider on whether he and his cabinet colleagues have broken ministerial rules.' That was the judgement of the then leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams in November 2012 as she led a move to establish a system that allows the Ministerial Code to be policed independently of the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales.

Kirsty moved a motion in the Assembly Plenary on 21 November calling for the Welsh Government to commit to ensure the policing of the ministerial code is independent and transparent. The record of Proceedings can be read here. The Welsh Liberal Democrats group were concerned that the only person who decides on whether or not the ministerial code of conduct has been broken is the First Minister.

Unfortunately, the motion was defeated on the casting vote of the Presiding Officer with the First Minister arguing that there is nothing wrong with the current system. In summing up he said:

We have to bear in mind, of course—and I will draw my remarks to a close at this point—that the ministerial code is a matter for me. It is right to say that Ministers are answerable and accountable to the Assembly and, in their professional performance, to me. I am, in turn, accountable to the Assembly and, ultimately, to the people of Wales. We do not have a system where nobody is accountable in any way. There is clear chain of accountability through this Assembly and, ultimately, to the people of Wales. In the absence of any examples of where the system has failed, in the absence of any suggestions as to why a presumably paid independent adviser should be put in place to deal with an exceptionally small number of complaints, and in the absence of any argument that suggests that an independent adviser would be in a different position to the civil servants currently providing independent advice to me, the Government is not able to support the motion as presently proposed. There are sufficient checks and balances in the current system. There is no suggestion that the current system is, in some way, not working. There is no suggestion that the current system has, in some way, failed to discover any wrongdoing by Ministers.

If anything the five years that have passed since that debate, and I recent events in particular, have underlined the relevance of the motion brought by the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The First Minister himself stands accused of misleading the Assembly, with no satisfactory means of investigating that complaint and holding him to account. 

In addition, serious allegations against a Minister were passed to the Labour Party to be dealt with by the First Minister, instead of using the existing, unsatisfactory process. 

As I said in that debate in 2012, 'We have a situation where the Welsh Government seems to be unique in being the only body, institution, or group of people in Wales that still sits as judge and jury on complaints against itself.'  No body or institution can justify that position in the light of all that has happened. It was difficult enough to argue in favour of that status quo five years ago. Surely it is time for change.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Driverless cars from a driverless government

I am a bit of a luddite secretly, at least when it comes to technological advancements that aim to cut out the human touch. I don't do on-line banking, I don't have a Netflix or Amazon account and for the life of me, I don't see why anybody would want to develop driverless cars.

Don't get me wrong. I am not the sort of person who mourns lost employment opportunities following the abolition of the man with a red flag who used to walk in front of the earliest motorcars. Nor do I want to go back to the days when one emerged from printing political leaflets covered in ink from an old Gestetner. And let's face it, I am a sci-fi fan who enjoys losing myself in tales of human endeavour in space involving technology beyond our reach.

For me, driving is a joy. Yes, it gets you from A to B, but it is also a challenge that opens up previously unseen vistas. I still remember getting lost on the Llwyn Peninsular and not wanting to turn back because I was so captivated by the scenery. As an AM I often embarked on long distance journeys when the getting there was more enjoyable than the event itself.

So what is the attraction of cars which don't need a driver? Will it really “put high-tech Britain in the fast lane”, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggests. I can understand the need to distract people from the Government's failures on Brexit, but surely the only impression that comes from this announcement is that it is the Government itself that is driverless.

The one motor vehicle investment I can support is the proposed investment in electric car points. If we are to move on from polluting petrol and diesel vehicles then that is the sort of infrastructure that needs to be in place. 5G mobile networks are also essential for the growth of business.

In my view driverless cars are the 21st Century equivalent of the Sinclair C5 car. They constitute a technological cul-de-sac. The investment would be better directed elsewhere.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Is Ireland an insurmountable obstacle to a Brexit deal?

Just how difficult disengaging ourselves from the EU will be has come into stark contrast this week with Ireland's determination to block any deal that puts up physical or other barriers on their border with the North.

As the Guardian records, Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar,has said that he will not be prepared to back progress of the Brexit negotiations to trade talks at the summit in December without a formal written guarantee there will be no hard border in Ireland. Britain:

Varadkar’s warning was the most blunt, though the EU is likely to take the lead from Ireland when it assesses whether enough genuine progress has been made on the issue of the border with Northern Ireland, one of the three key topics which must be agreed before talks progress to trade.

“We’ve been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past,” Varadkar said before his meeting with May. “We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one.”

Leaving the summit several hours later, Varadkar said he was not satisfied with the progress. “After 40 years of marriage, most of them good, now Britain wants a divorce, but an open relationship the day after,” he told Sky News. “We have heard now for 18 months … that the UK does not want a hard border in Ireland. But after 18 months of the right language we need to understand how that can be achieved in law.”

“We don’t have a counter-proposal from the UK government yet which makes any sense, but we would certainly welcome one,” he said.

Earlier at the summit, Varadkar was scathing about UK politicians who had backed Brexit: “It’s 18 months since the referendum. It’s 10 years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”

The issue of course is not just about physical infrastructure. Any barrier to trade such as differences in regulatory standards could be considered to be a problem.

This is going to be an issue that will task even the most malleable of negotiators and it will certainly threaten the Northern Ireland peace settlement. The Brexiteers cannot say they were not warned.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The impossible task facing government on Brexit

Another day, yet another warning about the mountain the government has to climb to effect a successful transition out of the European Union. This time it is the Public Accounts Committee, which is raising doubts as to whether civil servants can deliver more than 300 projects and hundreds of new laws in time for Britain’s exit from the EU. They have warned that non-Brexit-related business could be “neglected” by swamped officials.

The Independent says that much of the burden of transition will fall on medium-sized departments such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

They add that a National Audit Office (NAO) report says up to 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation need to pass through Parliament before exit day in March 2019 and that Brexit officials have warned all departments there is “minimal room” to consider other statutory instruments.

Public Accounts Committee Chair, Meg Hillier said: “This document lays bare the daunting challenge faced by the Civil Service in coordinating Brexit.

“I question whether Whitehall has the ability to deliver the 313 projects and hundreds of new laws it says are needed. There is a risk that anything non-Brexit related will be neglected.

“This raises the issue of whether DExEU, Treasury and the Cabinet Office are really doing enough to ensure government departments aren’t overwhelmed, and can continue to deliver the vital public services we are all relying on, alongside a smooth exit from the EU.”

It is not just the negotiations that are going badly, so is the government's preparations at home. Time for a rethink surely.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Do the Tories understand what needs to be done to tackle the housing crisis?

We will have to wait for the budget of course, before we can fully evaluate whether Theresa May's promise to personally solve the UK's housing crisis is going to deliver, but proposals hinted at in this article appear to me to fall well short of what is needed.

The Independent say that the chief measure will be the Chancellor will free up housing associations to borrow millions of pounds more for housebuilding. He will do that by taking housing associations’ debt off the balance sheet, with the goal being that they have a stable investment environment to build more homes.

In fact that move is being forced on him by an Audit Office ruling that housing associations count as public sector bodies and that their borrowing counts against the public debt targets. The Welsh Government are already taking a bill through the Assembly for the same reason.

Unless the budget allocates substantial sums of money to help fund a massive increase in the building of social and affordable housing, puts into place arrangements to help small builders overcome red tape and access finance, and simplifies planning rules then it is unlikely that the Prime Minister's crusade will the impact she hopes.

Do the Tories really understand what is needed to start tackling the UK's housing crisis. The devil is in the detail.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Consequences

Wales may have voted to leave the EU but did those who formed that slim majority fully understand the possible consequences of their actions?

The latest potential outcome could have a devastating effect on the Welsh car industry, with Aston Martin’s Chief Financial Officer warning that leaving the EU without a deal could prove “semi-catastrophic” for the car manufacturer and force a temporary halt to production:

Aston Martin selected the Ministry of Defence’s St Athan site in the Vale of Glamorgan as the location for its second UK manufacturing plant. Earlier this year it stated it was on target to start production of its new SUV, the Aston Martin DBX, in 2019.

At present, cars approved by the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) can be sold across the EU. If a deal is not agreed to allow this arrangement to continue after Brexit production will have to stop until new certification to sell vehicles abroad is secured.

Mark Wilson set out his concerns to the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee:

He said: “[For] Aston Martin it is far, far simpler than it is perhaps for Honda and some of the other larger international players. We are a British company.

“We produce our cars exclusively in Britain and will continue to do so and without VCA-type approval it really is quite a stark picture for us.”

He warned that if this type of approval was not carried over there would not only be “significant costs” but “the semi-catastrophic effects of having to stop production because we only produce cars in the UK”. Mr Wilson also stressed the need for clarity so the company could plan where to invest.

Let us hope that the UK Government are listening.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Theresa May and George Orwell

I don't know if Theresa May is a big reader, or even a student of political literature. Personally, my predilection has always been towards political biography.

I am currently reading 'George Orwell: A Life' by Bernard Crick, so the Prime Minister's speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet last night seems remarkably apposite.

The Guardian tells us that Mrs. May 'accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting fake stories in the media in an extraordinary attack on its attempts to “weaponise information” in order to sow discord in the west.'

One of Orwell's themes in his later career was the misuse of information. His Ministry of Truth turned the use 'fake news' in propaganda into an art form, though the term itself wouldn't be brought into use until many decades later. In both 1984 and Animal Farm he 'weaponised' information.

And let us not pretend that these techniques are the sole preserve of authoritarian regimes. The misuse and twisting of information is common in all political campaigns. It helped elect Donald Trump and it won the referendum for Brexit.

The key dividing line between what the Prime Minister alleged last night and the practises of her own party, is the interference of a foreign power in internal democratic processes. And there is nothing new about that either.

But as important as it is for the Prime Minister to air her concerns publicly and to expose the dubious practices of Putin and his government, she was engaged in her little own information war last night.

The government is in turmoil, Brexit negotiations are shambolic and going nowhere and Theresa May and her Ministers are driving the UK economy towards a cliff edge. When faced with an audience of business people, who manage thousands of jobs and millions of pounds of investment in Great Britain PLC, one would expect the Prime Minister to calm nerves and sooth fevered brows, in other words to try and put her government back on track. Instead, she talked about Russia.

In political and propaganda terms that technique is known as misdirection. Theresa May is as guilty as anybody of weaponising information. The only difference is that, for better or worse, she belongs to us and has her hands on the levers of power. Putin is meddling in areas that are not of his concern to secure his own interests. He needs to butt out, she needs to get her act together, and quickly.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Fear and loathing in Cardiff Bay?

The latest claims about the operation of government in Cardiff Bay are both sensational and deeply disturbing.

Allegations of a culture of a toxic culture and bullying associated with the First Minister's office by former Minister, Leighton Andrews, have been followed by verifying claims by former Special Advisor, Steve Jones.

Mr. Jones put out a statement in which he said: "Ministers were undermined by senior advisers playing power games and seeking to exert unreasonable control over government and the first minister himself," he said.

Some ministers, including Mr Sargeant, "would have their diaries unreasonably monitored and questioned, their policy proposals shelved and direct access to the first minister blocked".

"It went way beyond any 'office politics' or personality clashes," he said.

Mr Jones said at one stage he intended to resign because of the effect on his wellbeing but changed his mind when the first minister urged him to reconsider.

"Things improved for a few months, then the poison returned and it began to engulf others - advisers and ministers alike.

"It was clear that all this was getting Carl down."

One Labour AM has tweeted that he believes it to be 'reprehensible that people are using tragic circumstances to settle old scores'. And yet the only person being damaged here is Carwyn Jones.

Neither Steve Jones nor Leighton Andrews have called on Carwyn to resign, whilst both were amongst his strongest supporters for many years. I find it difficult to believe that revenge is their main motivation.

Steve Jones and Leighton Andrews were part of a tightly knit grouping in Cardiff Bay that included Carl Sargeant and at least one other Minister. They could often be seen out and about in the tea room, restaurants and pubs after close of business in the Assembly. They have a unique insight into the workings of Welsh Government.

I have no doubt about their sincerity and integrity and if the atmosphere they describe contributed in any way to Carl's death then it must be investigated as part of the independent inquiry being set up by the First Minister.

Wales is a small place. The Welsh Government is a tiny bubble of activity in which its members are under tremendous pressure and scrutiny. If devolution is to succeed we cannot afford for that government to be dysfunctional. If there is a rot it needs to be cut out.

We should not forget either the three women who made allegations against Carl. Their claims also need to be looked into so that everybody can have closure. I am not sure I have seen any statement by the Labour Party as to whether that will happen or not.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the soft coup d'grace

The Independent has a fascinating but unsurprising story in which they allege that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove sent a secret letter to Theresa May giving her instructions on how to orchestrate a hard Brexit.

According to the paper, the memo demands the Prime Minister "underline her resolve" for leaving the European Union, and sets out a date for transition arrangements between the EU and UK to end of 30 June 2021:

Mr Johnson and Mr Gove are also said to have urged the Prime Minister to ensure members of her top team fall behind their Brexit plans by "clarifying their minds" and called for them to "internalise the logic".

The leaked letter appears to make a thinly veiled attack on Chancellor Philip Hammond, who backed remain and wants a softer Brexit, for lacking the "sufficient energy" in preparing to the UK's future outside the bloc.

A senior Government source told the Mail the Foreign Secretary and Environment Secretary had conducted a "soft coup" and described Ms May as "their Downing Street hostage".

The letter, titled EU Exit - Next Steps, is marked "For your and Gavin's eyes only", a reference to the PM's chief of staff Gavin Barwell.

It states: "Your approach is governed by sensible pragmatism. That does not in any way dilute our ambition to be a fully independent self-governing country by the time of the next election.

"If we are to counter those who wish to frustrate that end, there are ways of underlining your resolve. "We are profoundly worried that in some parts of Government the current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy.

"We have heard it argued by some that we cannot start preparations on the basis of 'No Deal' because that would undermine our obligation of 'sincere co-operation' with the EU. If taken seriously, that would leave us over a barrel in 2021.

"We all want you to push your agenda forward with confidence and have your Government articulate the following..."

If this is a sign of who is really running the country then it is very worrying. Not only has Boris Johnson compromised himself and destroyed all his credibility over the false testimony he gave on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and his failure to retract it but both he and Gove's view of a no deal Brexit could plunge the country into a long recession.

Theresa May no longer appears to be in control of her cabinet. It is those now pulling the strings we really have to worry about.

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