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Monday, October 23, 2017

Welsh Government reasserts its nanny state approach on minimum pricing

Astonishingly, and as the BBC report, the Welsh Government is to go ahead with its plans to legislate to introduce a minimum price for alcohol in Wales.

Using a 50p-a-unit formula, it is likely that a typical can of cider would be at least £1 and a bottle of wine at least £4.69. A typical litre of vodka would have to cost more than £20.

Rather than be totally negative about this proposal, I will set out where I agree with the relevant Minister. She believes that tackling excessive drinking could save a life a week and mean 1,400 fewer hospital admissions a year.

Research has shown that while alcohol consumption levels have been falling in recent years, there are concerns amongst health officials that binge drinking is still a problem with young people, and there is also an issue with the over-50s. That research found that there were 463 alcohol-related deaths in Wales in 2015-16 and 54,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions.

I have no reason to doubt the claim that by tackling binge drinking we can save the NHS £6.5m a year by reducing the impact on hospitals while boosting the Welsh economy by £44m a year by reducing workplace absence and crime.

If we can eliminate that cost and save lives then we should do so, but only if the measures that are proposed are effective. That is where I find the Welsh Government's case wanting.

The research suggests that although high-risk drinkers make up only a quarter of people who drink alcohol, they drink 72% of all alcohol consumed and account for 65% of all spending.

However, where is the evidence that this particular cohort, who are clearly more dependent on alcohol than the average punter, will be influenced by higher prices? Where is the evidence that raising the price of alcohol in supermarkets in particular will impact on the statistics set out above?

As one recovering alcoholic told the BBC: "[hardened drinkers are] going to try to get alcohol by any means necessary and I think it will put more strain on very underprivileged people." The Welsh Retail Consortium has also expressed concern that minimum prices may hit less affluent, moderate consumers of alcohol "whilst not necessarily having the desired impact on problem drinkers".

This measure will penalise poorer people, whilst having little or no impact on the hard core drinkers who are the real problem. It is the nanny state reasserting itself in an evidence-free crackdown that will make them feel better but is unlikely to meet the objectives they have set for it.

To repeat a question I posed over two years ago now, does the use of minimum pricing also send another message: that the Welsh Government believe that drinking is only a problem when it is the poor who do it?

It is certainly the case that those with limited incomes will not be able to afford to drink as much. Those who have more money will carry on regardless, whilst people dependent on alcohol will find ways to get hold of it as they always have done.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Another reason to lift the public sector pay cap

Anybody who thinks that the effects of 2008 crash are in the past, needs to look again. Not only is the economy still struggling to get back to pre-2008 levels but some of the measures put into effect by the UK Government to control expenditure continue to hot ordinary people.

One of those measures was the public sector pay cap. This was meant to be a temporary measure but for some reason successive Chancellors of the Exchequer have not been able to bring themselves to lift it. Now, as the Guardian reports, we have a situation where public sector workers’ pay has dipped below that of their private sector counterparts.

The paper says that an analysis of hourly earnings shows that last year public sector workers were paid 0.6% less than private sector colleagues in similar jobs. By comparison, they enjoyed a premium of 3.1% compared with the private sector in 2005, rising to 5.8% in 2010.

Phillip Hammond announced a partial lifting of the 1% pay cap last month, affecting only the police and prison officers but as far as I am aware has declined to fund it. That will mean even further cuts in those services.

The Guardian add that the chancellor maintains public sector workers are still better off than their private sector colleagues because they benefit from higher employer pension contributions:

But the GMB say its analysis shows that they also pay in significantly more through employee contributions. Three in five public sector workers pay in at least 6% of earnings on average, compared with one in seven private sector workers. Research suggests that when private sector wages outstrip those in the public sector, hospital fatality rates rise and schools’ GCSE results decline.

Time for a U-turn and a decent pay rise for the public sector properly funded by central government.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The National Trust needs to grasp the nettle on hunting

I used to be a member of the National Trust but left in disgust in 1990 when its ruling council voted to effectively ignore an all-member vote to ban deer hunting on Trust land. 

As well as stately homes, the National Trust owns thousands of acres of valuable land throughout the UK, including large parts of Gower, where they act as an effective bulwark against those who might want to destroy or undermine it as Britain's first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

As a leading conservation advocate and a trustee of our natural heritage, the National Trust in my view has a duty to do more than just preserve valuable areas of beauty and historic buildings, they should also be concerned with the wildlife that lives on their land. That is why I favour them closing off their land to hunting of any sort.

Trail hunting may be an attempt to simulate an actual hunt but it can also result in the 'accidental' death of live prey. That sort of 'accident' is becoming increasingly common. There is no reason why these so called hunters cannot resort to drag hunting, which is far less likely to lead to such an outcome.

These forms of hunting may well be traditional but so, at one time was bear-baiting, dog fighting and many other sports that have been outlawed as cruel and unnecessary. If I were still a member of the National Trust I would be at the meeting in Swindon today to vote to ban trail hunting on their land. I would not though have any confidence in the ruling council to implement it.

The National Trust needs to provide leadership on these matters if it is to live up to its reputation as an important conservation body and if it is to carry on in that role into the 21st century.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Are the Tories turning impotence into an instrument of government?

Earlier this week the Official Opposition in the House of Commons won a vote to delay the rollout of Universal Credit. The reasons why they wish to postpone the implementation of a benefit change that is supported by all the major parties is academic for the purposes of this piece (though not for those affected). Needless to say, the Government has made a hash of administering the new payments and lots of people are suffering needlessly as a result.

The significance of this vote was that on a major plank of Government policy the Tory whips ordered their MPs to abstain. As a result the motion was won by 299 votes to zero. Nothing has changed as a result of this vote. It is merely advisory. But lots of MPs, including the Speaker himself, it appears, think that such an overwhelming majority should lead to a substantive Government climb-down.

The fact is that faced with five years without a majority, a billion pound arrangement with the DUP that only applies to budgets and confidence votes, and increasing unrest on their back benches, Tory Minister are ducking and diving to avoid any unnecessary vote that will prolong their agony. As such, when it comes to any confrontation in the Parliamentary lobbies that does not have substantial consequences for governance, they are ignoring it in the hope that it will go away.

It is impotence elevated to be an instrument of government. We are now being treated to the spectacle of a government running away from fights instead of taking them head-on, of shying away from their own policy agenda rather than promoting it.

In some instances this might be helpful, but on the whole it is bad for the country and bad for democracy. Effectively, Ministers are refusing to be accountable to Parliament for their actions by failing to put their policies to the vote. Nowhere does this matter more than on Brexit, a subject on which Ministers have a dismal record in submitting to effective scrutiny.

The Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into giving MPs a vote on implementing Article 50, they are refusing to allow voters to have a final say on any deal they negotiate and it is not yet clear what role MPs will have in approving or rejecting such an agreement. And now the Leader of the House is delaying the committee stage of her very flawed Brexit Bill because she is afraid that her Tory backbenchers will eviscerate it.

If the King of farce, late Brian Rix had devised a play along these lines he would have been dismissed as a being an out-of-touch fantasist. Unfortunately, the only fantasists in this drama are the Government, who think they can carry on like this for another four and a half years.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

UK Government abandons promise to social housing tenants

We were all emotional after the terrible tragedy that killed so many people living and staying in Grenfell Tower in London. Our first thought was with the families and then we started to think how we could prevent such a terrible fire happening again.

That was when the UK Government together with the three National Governments and every local council started to identify high risk blocks of flats, carried out tests and started to plan to replace unsafe cladding and install sprinklers and other measures where appropriate.

Ministers promised every assistance to keep tenants safe. We are now learning the limits of that assistance and how in some cases the Government is making the judgement that they must continue to take risks with people's lives.

As the Independent reports, Theresa May has confirmed there will be no Government cash to fit sprinklers in tower blocks, triggering accusations she has broken a promise made after the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

She has told MPs that it is “up to the council to make decisions”, despite the multi-million pound bills that many town halls face and which they will have difficulties finding. Nottingham, Croydon and Wandsworth have all had multi-million pound requests turned, even after being advised to carry out works by their local fire brigades.

The government are in fact falling back on two classic civil servant-style responses, redefining what is essential and what work is additional, and pushing responsibility to where it legally lies, the landlord, despite saying they would assist previously.

I am aware that many Conservative politicians believe that sprinklers are a 'nice extra', however in these high rise blocks, where escape routes can be easily blocked and advice is to stay put in the event of a fire, they are essential. That view is backed up by expert opinion, so why is the UK government ignoring it and going back on previous promises?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Will Brexit lead to troops being deployed on our borders?

The level of preparedness of the UK Government for our exit from the EU has come under severe scrutiny in recent months and has been found wanting.

In the circumstances claims by some Brexiteer Ministers that we should consider a 'No deal' scenario are laughable. We simply do not have the relevant resources in place to sustain such an arrangement.

That is why Theresa May is now in favour of a transition period. She understands that the UK Government needs the time to make the investment that will sustain our trade in the event of tariffs being imposed. Even then we are just delaying the inevitable dive off a very high cliff.

It is hardly surprising then that the Independent is now reporting that the top Home Office civil servant has said that the use of troops on Britain’s borders could be a "last resort” in the event of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Philip Rutnman, the Home Office permanent secretary, told the Home Affairs Select Committee: “Our preference – strong preference – is to deal with the border and security needed at the border through border force and that is the basis in which our planning is proceeding.”

Mr Rutnman added that the Home Office is already in the process of recruiting an additional 300 border forces officers, to “ensure we can deal with the consequences of leaving the European Union with a deal or without a deal”.

So as well as bankrupting the economy and punishing the poor, Brexit is also creating a military junta.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How 'No deal' will hit poorest families the hardest

Whilst Tory MPs continue to play their own version of Noel Edmond's game show, 'Deal or No Deal', the Guardian reveals the real consequences of Theresa May walking away from negotiations, and it will be the families on the lowest incomes who will suffer the most.

The paper says that leaving the European Union without a trade deal would likely result in a sharp increase in prices for food and other goods, costing the average UK household £260 and hitting low-income families hardest. A Resolution Foundation report, titled Switching Lanes, says there would significant price rises on a range of household goods if ministers stuck to their fallback plan of resorting to World Trade Organisation tariffs on EU goods in the event of a no-deal outcome:

Imposing tariffs on EU goods after Brexit would lead to an 8% increase in dairy products, a 6% rise in meat and a 5.5% jump in the cars of motor vehicles, the report found. It was published after farmers and the food industry dismissed as “tripe” a claim by the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, that the UK could become self-sufficient in food after Brexit.

The prime minister said on her first day in Downing Street that it was her mission to create an economy that “worked for everyone” including those who were “just about managing”. But the Resolution Foundation and Sussex University study said that hard-pressed families were most at risk from a no-deal outcome because they spend more of their budgets on food, clothing and household goods.

It found that the impact of rising prices would add 1.1% to the cost of living for the poorest 20% of households, against 0.8% for the richest 20%. Inflation is expected by the City to hit a five-year high of 3% when official figures are released on Tuesday.

Tory MPs and Tory Ministers need to understand that leaving the EU without a deal is not a victimless crime.

Monday, October 16, 2017

UKIP's badger problem

One of the more extraordinary news stories of the weekend has to be this one in the Daily Mirror in which they report on the remarkable claim by the new new UKIP leader that he could capture a badger and kill it with his bare hands.

The reference came when he was asked a question about possible initiation ceremonies for UKIP leaders. Henry Bolton told Russia Today that “the one that was probably most suitable for me was chasing a badger across Dartmoor, capturing it and then breaking its neck with one’s bare hands, which was a slightly unusual thing.”

This should serve as confirmation if it was needed, that UKIP is not planning to target the green vote or animal activists in its next election campaign. Perhaps the UK Government will consider hiring Mr. Bolton to carry out its misguided badger cull in the future. He may well prove more effective than their current method.

Still, at least we now know why Bolton left the Liberal Democrats - far too red-blooded!

Update: As a commenter reminds me Paddy Ashdown could kill a man with his bare hands. Since he stepped down as leader the party stopped eating so much red meat,

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The grim reality of a no-deal Brexit

With speculation growing that extremists in the Tory Government are actively considering leaving the EU without a deal in place, it is worth reflecting on how disastrous that will be for the UK. The Observer sets out some of the consequences.

They say that if there is no UK-EU deal before March 2019, the consequences would be huge and immediate:

The return of customs checks would mean a return to the hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic. For trade, the UK would default to WTO rules, meaning tariffs would be imposed on goods leaving the UK for the EU and on those sold into the UK market by the remaining 27 member states. The government has said it wants the continuation of “frictionless” trade with EU countries. But a WTO regime would, by contrast, mean tariffs of between 2% and 3% on many industrial goods. They would be far higher in others sectors: 10% for cars and 20% to 40% for many agricultural products. The British Chambers of Commerce and other business groups are warning that some British companies will consider moving abroad and that investment in the UK could suffer.

Hammond said last week that there was also a prospect of flights between UK and EU airports being grounded as the UK would no longer fall inside the EU’s aviation regulatory regime. The right of EU nationals to stay in the UK could also disappear, as would those of UK citizens living in EU countries.


As the paper points out the hard-Brexit supporting right wing of the Tory party was arguing only a year ago that Brexit would be relatively smooth and simple. It has proved to be anything but, and the Brexiteers are starting to look for somebody to blame.

They blame the EU and the Remainers for blocking the way to the kind of future they sold to the British people as possible and desirable before the Brexit referendum last year. But the reality is that they campaigned on lies they could not deliver and, as the paper says it is the British people who will suffer:

Tens of thousands of jobs are linked to seamless trade with the European Union. Multinational firms fly staff to Ireland, France, Germany and the low countries without interference from border control officials. Then there is the example of the crankshaft used in the BMW Mini, which crosses the Channel three times in a 2,000-mile journey before the finished car rolls off the production line. It is one of the classic trips made by hundreds of car parts that would be stopped at the border in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Northern Ireland would be one of the worst-affected regions, as food manufacturers use ingredients from south of the border and sell the final product in the republic too.

The CBI gives the example of a Northern Irish bread-maker that buys flour from Ireland, makes the product in the north, and then transports bread to Dublin. Even if the UK continues to recognise the EU HGV licence used by the Polish driver (for example) and the EU food standards that determine the bread’s shelf life, after Brexit the loaf could be inedible by the time it has reached its destination or so expensive that local bakeries quickly step in and win the day.

Nissan is among the carmakers to say that they have already started getting their parts from the UK to offset the effects of a hard Brexit that involves restrictions on immigrant labour and tight border controls. But its scenario-planning cannot cope without a deal of some sort.

Banks were among the first to plan for a hard Brexit that might deny them the “passporting” rights that allow money transfers and derivatives transactions to happen seamlessly across borders.

The last year has seen a succession of UK banks and insurers set up offshoots in what will remain of the EU, allowing them to bypass Britain if they need to. Foreign banks that have based their European HQs in London have done likewise.

This level of contingency planning means that it is most likely that British travellers will be able to withdraw funds abroad and transfer money the day after Brexit, whatever the outcome. But a last-minute decision to crash out of the EU is likely to send the pound tumbling, meaning that Brits abroad will find the ATM gives them a fraction of what they expected. And there could be extra charges to compensate for the higher administration costs faced by banks.

Other service industries are unlikely to be quite as prepared, even though they collectively account for 40% of EU trade, up from 23% in 1999. And to show its importance to UK firms, this rise of almost a quarter compares with a 6% increase in non-EU trade over the same time period.

The CBI says: “Exports of business services, such as design, advertising and architecture, together with financial services, account for over half of the UK’s overall growth in services exports.And these sectors may be particularly vulnerable to a sudden re-emergence of trade barriers with the EU.”


In addition there will be the threat to flights to and from the UK as well as an inevitable increase in the price of day to day goods and services. Those advocating a hard Brexit do not speak for us. They will plunge the UK economy into crisis. The question is, do they care?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

UK climate change plan hits the rocks

Whatever one might think about the Welsh Government's record on the environment, at least we can acknowledge that they understand the problems and that they try, even if sometimes that effort is ineffective or insufficient. The same cannot be said for the UK Government.

As the Independent reports, experts in the field believe that the Government has “blown an enormous opportunity” to transform Britain’s record on climate change. They are very critical of the UK's long-awaited green master plan:

Ministers unveiled their much-delayed clean growth strategy this week, which sets out more than 50 measures to boost energy efficiency and clean power to get the UK on track to meet key emissions targets - which it is currently set to miss by a wide margin.

The blueprint drew criticism from the Government's own independent climate advisers over its suggestion that "flexibilities" in the law could be used to meet legally binding targets on cutting greenhouse gases. The Government also faces a threat of legal action as the strategy concedes that the UK may not meet these key targets for the late 2020s and early 2030s, despite wide-ranging measures to cut emissions.

Environmental campaigners raised concern that the strategy was too timid and failed to contain the necessary measures to meet the UK's own laws on cutting carbon.

The criticism is wide-ranging and non-partisan:

Lord Deben, chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, the climate change watchdog, said the strategy would kickstart efforts to meet the UK's carbon targets but rejected its suggestion that "flexibilities" in the Climate Change Act could be used to meet targets.

Activist lawyers ClientEarth, which took the Government to court over failures on air pollution, said the firm was considering legal options as the UK set to miss its emissions reductions target for 2023 to 2027 by 116 million tonnes - equivalent to the Philippines' annual emissions.

Simon Bullock, Friends of the Earth senior climate campaigner, warned that the UK was still "stuck in a rut" over fossil fuels, transport and airport expansion.

He said: "While the plan has some huge gaps the government is rightly presenting tackling climate change as a massive opportunity for economic rebirth, and for Britain to lead the world.

“But clearly there is far more actual policy needed – the plan does not deliver on UK targets for cutting emissions, let alone the more ambitious Paris climate agreement, and some parts of government are still firmly stuck in a rut of more fossil fuels, roads and runways.”

Back to the drawing board then.

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