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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Labour's dissarray over Brexit continues

One of the biggest threats posed to the country and our economy by Brexit is the failure of the official opposition to adopt a clear position and to properly scrutinise the way the UK Government are dealing with this issue.

There are honourable exceptions of course such as Kier Starmer but, as reported here before, he is being constantly undermined by other Shadow Cabinet members.

The Independent reports that this lack of clarity is frustrating many within the Labour Party as well as without, with senior Labour MPs accusing their party leadership of paving the way for a hard Brexit while aping the populist language of Nigel Farage.

They say that Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is facing a furious backlash over a speech, which urged Labour to “embrace the enormous opportunities” of withdrawal – instead of fighting to prevent its most damaging consequences. Mr McDonnell also horrified many high-profile backbenchers by accusing pro-Europe MPs of siding with “corporate elites” – a charge normally levelled by Ukip.

The most incendiary sections of the speech were briefed in advance to a right-wing newspaper only, adding to suspicions that the Labour Chancellor is attempting to bounce Labour into a tougher anti-Brexit stance. A string of former shadow ministers told The Independent that the shift would make it easier for the government to pursue the hard Brexit apparently sought by Theresa May.

Yet Labour, in alliance with up to 30 Tory MPs and the other parties, has a potential Commons majority in favour of staying as close as possible to the single market, to protect trade and jobs – a so-called soft Brexit.

Some MPs are prepared to give quotes to the paper but not do so on the record:

One prominent Labour MP said: “John gives the impression that we will simply lay down and accept a hard Brexit with joy in our hearts, but that is a million miles away from where the Labour Party should be.” A second warned: “If we carry on with that sort of language, it will play into the hands of the hard Brexiteers, who claim we can leave the EU without the downsides and the risks.”

And a third, a former minister, turned on Mr McDonnell for suggesting anyone making a pro-Europe case was somehow playing the game of “corporate elites”. “A lot of people see the EU as having done much to preserve peace, to introduce good employment and environmental standards and having allowed Britain to be a good place to invest,” he added. “They don’t want to be told that, if they believe those things, they are in the pocket of corporate elites – which is the Ukip, nationalist, right-wing position.”

Only the Liberal Democrats are outlining a clear and united position on the way forward and we are the only party advocating a referendum so people can decide to accept or reject the final deal.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Who is entitled to see our entire internet history?

As the Investigatory Powers Bill passes into law, internet providers will be required to keep a full record of every site that each of its customers have visited and that means that a number of government agencies will have the right to inspect our full browsing history.

The snoopers charter forces internet providers to keep a full list of internet connection records for a year and to make them available to the Government if asked. Those records will serve as a full list of every website that people have visited, rather than collecting which specific pages are visited or what's done on them.

They will be made available to a wide range of government bodies. Those include expected law enforcement organisations such as the police, the military and the secret service, but also includes bodies such as the Food Standards Agency, the Gambling Commission, councils and the Welsh Ambulance Services National Health Service Trust.

The Independent provides a full list of agencies that can now ask for UK citizens’ browsing history set out below:

Metropolitan Police Service
City of London Police
Police forces maintained under section 2 of the Police Act 1996
Police Service of Scotland
Police Service of Northern Ireland
British Transport Police
Ministry of Defence Police
Royal Navy Police
Royal Military Police
Royal Air Force Police
Security Service
Secret Intelligence Service
Ministry of Defence
Department of Health
Home Office
Ministry of Justice
National Crime Agency
HM Revenue and Customs
Department for Transport
Department for Work and Pensions
NHS trusts and foundation trusts in England that provide ambulance services
Common Services Agency for the Scottish Health Service
Competition and Markets Authority
Criminal Cases Review Commission
Department for Communities in Northern Ireland
Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland
Department of Justice in Northern Ireland
Financial Conduct Authority
Fire and rescue authorities under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004
Food Standards Agency
Food Standards Scotland
Gambling Commission
Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority
Health and Safety Executive
Independent Police Complaints Commissioner
Information Commissioner
NHS Business Services Authority
Northern Ireland Ambulance Service Health and Social Care Trust
Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Board
Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Regional Business Services Organisation
Office of Communications
Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
Police Investigations and Review Commissioner
Scottish Ambulance Service Board
Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission
Serious Fraud Office
Welsh Ambulance Services National Health Service Trust 

I am at a loss why some of those agencies would need this power at all. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

What Brexit will cost us

As we digest the contents of this week's autumn statement and the economic forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility, it is worth reflecting on how exactly the decision to leave the European Union is going to hit ordinary working people.

The Western Mail reports on an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which concludes that workers face the “dreadful” prospect of real wages still lagging behind 2008 levels in 2021. Paul Johnson, speaking on behalf of the IFS told the paper:

“Overall real average earnings are forecast to rise by less than 5% between now and 2021.

"To put it another way around half of the wage growth projected for the next five years back in March is not now projected to happen.

“On these projections real wages will, remarkably, still be below their 2008 levels in 2021.

"One cannot stress enough how dreadful that is – more than a decade without real earnings growth.

“We have certainly not seen a period remotely like it in the last 70 years.”

He further warned that the “real value” of working age benefits such as the Jobseeker’s Allowance will “fall by 7.7% rather than 6.5%”.

The Resolution Foundation have also waded in. They expect a hit to wages, stating in their Autumn Statement analysis: “Average earnings are now forecast to be £830 a year lower than expected in 2020, with this decade now set to be the weakest one for wage growth since the 1900s.

"Growth of just 1.6% between 2010 and 2020 compares with an increase of 12.7% in the 2000s and over 20% in every other decade since the 1920s.”

The foundation warns that “real weekly earnings are forecast to grow by just 1.6% over the decade, compared to 12.7% in the 2000s and over 20% in every other decade since the 1920s”.

It further warns: “While top earners were hit the hardest following the financial crisis, the big difference looking forward is that the biggest losers are lower income families, with the entire bottom third of the income distribution set to see incomes fall in the years ahead.”

Brexit then is going to hit the lowest earners and those on benefits the hardest. Meanwhile Nigel Farage, who was instrumental in getting us into this mess, is set to go on a tour of the USA, where he could earn half a million dollars for 20 lectures. Nice work if you can get it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The figure they didn't put on the side of a bus

Any pretence that we will have an extra £350 million a week to spend on the health service surely went out of the window today when the Chancellor stood up in the House of Commons and outlined the financial consequences of the Brexit vote.

As the Daily Mirror reports, the Independent Office for Budget Responsibility's figures estimate the national debt will spiral above 90% of GDP. While estimates for growth in 2016 are marginally higher, up from 2 to 2.1%, the paper reports that they drop staggeringly from 2.2% to 1.4% in 2017.

The OBR said hugely increased borrowing will total £122 billion over the next few years. And its analysis shows £58.7bn of borrowing over five years was "related to the referendum result and exiting the EU".

According to the paper, the Open Britain group say that this means Brexit will cost £226 million a week, a far cry from the Leave campaign's claims of £350 million extra a week for the NHS that were plastered down the side of a bus.

If those who lied about the money the NHS would receive after Brexit and then left others to sort out the mess they created, had put on the side of the bus that actually it was going to cost us an extra £226 million a week and that the health service would not see an extra penny, maybe the country might have voted differently.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Distant memories of the campaign trail

There are many examples of politicians overreaching themselves on the campaign trail, making promises that prove to be impossible to keep, or miscalculating the deliver-ability of a particular policy, but I think it is safe to say that as in so many other matters, Donald Trump has broken the mould on that one too.

Will the great wall of Mexico ever be built along the shores of the Rio Grande? Can he really set up a register of Muslims, the fastest growing religion in the United States? And what about Obamacare? Has he already signalled a retreat on that promise too?

Ultimately, the pledges that are most difficult to deliver are those caught up in the rhetoric of the campaign, when Trump threw caution to the wind and sought to be as outrageous as possible to maximise his publicity and energise his core support. Now, he has started to row back from some of those positions.

The Independent reports that the President-elect has backed down on his vow to appoint a special prosecutor to probe Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. This has apparently disappointed many of his supporters who genuinely thought that he would do it.

And now there has been a second, equally fundamental u-turn on climate change evidenced in an interview with reporters and columnists of The New York Times. Trump told them that he accepted some possibility of “connectivity” between global warming and human activity and signaled he may after all embrace the new international treaty on emissions.

The paper says that Mr Trump predicted his supporters would get over their disappointment because 'his administration would “save our country” in other ways. That sentiment is unlikely to mollify Judicial Watch, a right wing group that seeks to influence the country’s legal landscape.

“It would be a betrayal of his promise to the American people to 'drain the swamp' of out-of-control corruption in Washington,” it fulminated later on Tuesday. “President-elect Trump should focus on healing the broken justice system, affirm the rule of law and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Clinton scandals.”'

Trump hasn't even taken office yet and already he is acknowledging the reality of power. The problem is that there is still a substantial list of excesses to be put into place. We can only hope that his penchant for u-turns continues.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

UKIP continue to lose Parliamentarians

UKIP's unique record of losing MEPs at a rate unparalleled amongst any other political party has continued with the departure of their former leader, Diane James. Of the 40 people ever to have served as UKIP MEPs, thirteen, 32.5% of the total, have either now quit the party or been expelled

Once considered a rising star, Diane James left Ukip, saying her relationship with the party had become "increasingly difficult" and will now sit in the European Parliament as an Independent.

As the Independent reports, infighting has plagued UKIP since Mr Farage stood down, with one high-profile dispute involving leadership hopeful Steven Woolfe culminating in him leaving the party and claiming it was in a "death spiral":

In a statement, Ms James said the president of the European parliament, Martin Shultz, had accepted her request to stand as an independent.

"At a high profile public event in Cambridge last week, I was asked why I had not completed the process to become leader of UKIP," she said.

"I had little option, but to give the truthful response that, although nominated leader by popular vote in the membership, I found that I had no support within the executive and thus no ability to carry forward the policies on which I had campaigned.

"My decision to retire from the election process and not complete it was very difficult personally and professionally, given that Ukip has dominated my life and all my efforts for over five years.

"In recent weeks, my relationship with the party has been increasingly difficult and I feel it is now time to move on."

It is looking increasingly like Steven Woolfe may have been right and that UKIP, now devoid of a purpose, is in a death spiral.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The mummy returns?

Those who recall Margaret Thatcher's triumph return to the Tory Party Conference, when she announced that 'The Mummy has returned" in direct reference to a poster advertising an American action adventure fantasy film, may feel a twinge of Déjà vu at this weekend's news that Tony Blair is to re-enter politics.

The Independent says that the controversial former Prime Minister is engineering a comeback because he feels he can fill a political vacuum caused by Theresa May being a “light weight” and Jeremy Corbyn being a “nutter”. They add that Blair is sourcing premises near Westminster in order to relocate 130 staff to the UK’s political hub:

They add that a source allegedly told the Sunday Times: “He’s not impressed with Theresa May. He thinks she’s a total lightweight. He thinks Jeremy Corbyn’s a nutter and the Tories are screwing up Brexit. He thinks there’s a massive hole in British politics that he can fill.”

None of this is confirmed of course nor is their any indication as to what role Blair will seek to take up if the speculation proves to be true.

The account in the Independent as to Blair's views on Brexit is interesting:

In October, Mr Blair called for a second Brexit referendum to be held when it becomes clearer what EU withdrawal would actually look like. He said: “If you want to retain that access to the single market there will be various obligations that are imposed upon you, in relation to the free movement of people, to legal obligations…you are going to have to work out at that point, ‘are the freedoms that we’re going to enjoy…really so substantial that we want to leave the European Union?’.

“Another possibility is that you actually go for a much harder form of Brexit, you leave the single market altogether…then you’re going to be able to calculate, how much pain, how much difficulty, economic/social restructuring, is going to be necessary to make a success of that.”

Mr Blair added that people supporting Remain are: “the insurgents now. We have to build the capability to mobilise and to organise. We have to prise apart the alliance which gave us Brexit.”

In calling for a referendum on the terms of exit, Blair is much more in line with Liberal Democrats' thinking than that of Labour. Nevertheless, I cannot see Tim Farron picking up the phone and ringing him anytime soon.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Labour splits widen over Brexit

Theresa May's refusal to commit the Government to anything more meaningful than 'Brexit means Brexit' may well be keeping the Tories together for the time being, but that is certainly not the case for Labour.

The Guardian reports that the carefully brokered truce within Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is at risk of blowing apart, with the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said to be “furious” at John McDonnell’s description of leaving the European Union as an “enormous opportunity”:

How to tackle voters’ concerns about the free movement of people has become an increasingly fraught issue within the party since the EU referendum, with some backbenchers, including Emma Reynolds, Stephen Kinnock and Rachel Reeves, suggesting the party should back tougher controls.

But Corbyn, Abbott, and the shadow business secretary, Clive Lewis, are keener to stand up for the benefits of immigration — though Lewis has suggested foreign workers could be forced to join a trade union before they can take up a post in Britain.

Labour’s policy on Brexit is discussed at fortnightly meetings of a “Brexit subcommittee”, chaired by Corbyn, with Starmer, Thornberry and Abbott present.

But McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, reportedly went far beyond the agreed line – and shocked some Labour MPs, including Starmer – when he used his pre-autumn statement speech in London on Tuesday to urge the party to seize on the opportunities opened up by Britain’s exit from the EU. One source described the shadow Brexit secretary as “absolutely furious” about McDonnell’s intervention.

McDonnell said in his speech: “Labour accepts the referendum result as the voice of the majority and we must embrace the enormous opportunities to reshape our country that Brexit has opened for us.

“In that way we can speak again to those who were left behind and offer a positive, ambitious vision instead of leaving the field open to divisive Trump-style politics.”

With both the Tories and Labour ripping themselves apart over Europe, those who are committed to remaining within the EU, those voters seeking to have a say over whatever deal is cooked up in response to the referendum result, only have the Liberal Democrats to turn to.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

How high are the electoral stakes on Brexit?

The lay of the land is that the Tories and UKIP are committed to coming out of the European Union, the Liberal Democrats want a referendum on any deal and Labour, well Labour are all over the shop but seem to be leaning towards a soft Brexit.

Just what impact these positions could have on the future electoral prospects of these parties has been revealed by a new poll.

The Independent reports that a YouGov survey has concluded that the Liberal Democrats could beat Labour at the next general election because of their pledge to hold a second EU referendum.

According to the survey if all the parties except the Liberal Democrats said they would press ahead with Brexit, my party would gain 22 per cent of the vote, while Labour would score just 19 per cent.

The Conservatives would come first with 39 per cent of the vote and UKIP would take 14 per cent.

They say that the results would produce a notional Tory majority in the Commons of over 100 seats, according to an electoral calculus projection of the results.

Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP have all already said they would accept the result of Brexit – while the Liberal Democrats have said they would offer a second referendum.

The stakes are very high but Tim Farron's principled position on our membership of the EU certainly has the potential to help a Liberal Democrats revival.

Friday, November 18, 2016

UKIP may be asked to repay £150,000 in 'misspent funds'

The Guardian reports that UKIP is likely to be asked to repay tens of thousands of euros by European parliament finance chiefs who have accused the party of misspending EU funds on party workers and Nigel Farage’s failed bid to win a seat in Westminster.

They say that the Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe (ADDE), a UKIP-dominated political vehicle, will be asked to repay €173,000 (£148,000) in misspent funds and denied a further €501,000 in EU grants for breaking European rules that ban spending EU money on national election campaigns and referendums:

According to a European parliament audit report seen by the Guardian, Ukip spent EU funds on polling and analysis in constituencies where they hoped to win a seat in the 2015 general election, including the South Thanet seat that party leader Farage contested. The party also funded polls to gauge the public mood on leaving the EU, months before the official campaign kicked off in April 2016.

“These services were not in the interest of the European party, which could neither be involved in the national elections nor in the referendum on national level,” concluded the parliament’s finance watchdog.

“The constituencies selected for many of the polls underline that the polling was conducted in the interest of Ukip. Most of the constituencies can be identified as being essential for reaching a significant representation in the House of Commons from the 2015 general election or for a positive result for the leave campaign,” the report continued.

The ADDE also used EU funds for polling before the Scottish and Welsh elections in 2016, the report said. “The administration discovered a substantial number of activities for which financing ought to be considered as non-eligible expenditure,” the watchdog said.

The question has to be asked as to how exactly UKIP will be able to fund its party political activities after Brexit, when the option of using public money will not be available to it?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, what could possibly go wrong?

The man who effectively invented the myth of the straight banana when he was a reporter based in Brussels is now foreign secretary and continues to put his foot in it all around Europe.

The Guardian reports on the latest row involving Boris Johnson, in which he was ridiculed by European ministers after he told Italy it would have to offer tariff-free trade in order to sell its prosecco in the UK:

Carlo Calenda, an Italian economics minister, said it was insulting that Johnson had told him during a recent meeting that Italy would grant Britain access to the EU’s single market “because you don’t want to lose prosecco exports”.

“He basically said: ‘I don’t want free movement of people but I want the single market,’” he told Bloomberg. “I said: ‘No way.’ He said: ‘You’ll sell less prosecco.’ I said: ‘OK, you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.’ Putting things on this level is a bit insulting.”

The Italian also attacked the whole government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations, saying the demand by Johnson and others for access to the single market was incompatible with curbs on free movement of people.

“Somebody needs to tell us something, and it needs to be something that makes sense,” he told Bloomberg. “You can’t say that it’s sensible to say we want access to the single market but no free circulation of people. It’s obvious that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”

Calenda, a former Italian envoy to Brussels, said: “There’s lots of chaos and we don’t understand what the position is. It’s all becoming an internal UK debate, which is not OK. The British government needs to sit down, put its cards on the table and negotiate.”

The paper also refers to an attack by the Dutch finance minister and Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who said Johnson’s aims of leaving the customs union at the same time as securing immigration controls and maintaining access to the single market were not achievable.

The more we learn about the approach of the UK Government to Brexit negotiations the more shambolic they appear to be. The Foreign Secretary is tramping around Europe blundering over what they are hoping to achieve.

If only they had thought about an end game before they took the matter to the country in a referendum.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Welsh Assembly set to support Liberal Democrats policy to abolish Severn Bridge tolls

If a year is a long time in politics then two years is an eternity. That is how it seems today as the BBC report that all the Welsh Assembly party groups are set to call for the scrapping of the Severn bridge tolls.

It is nice to see that what started out as a Liberal Democrats policy, as reflected in our 2015 General Election manifesto has now achieved a consensus in the Assembly. It was not always the case.

On 12 November 2014, the Welsh Liberal Democrats group tabled a motion which called for the tolls to be scrapped altogether. Our motion said:

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

1. Notes the current forecasts that the concession agreement for the Severn Bridges will come to an end in 2018 and that early discussions need to take place as to the future ownership, maintenance and tolling system for the bridges.

2. Believes that the current tolling system is an unfair burden on businesses, commuters and the public.

3. Calls on the Welsh Government to work closely with the UK Government on planning for the future of the bridges.

4. Calls on the UK Government to abolish the tolls on the Severn Bridges once the existing construction and repair costs are paid off.

The reaction of the other parties was predictable. Plaid Cymru, the Tories and Labour all tabled amendments to delete point four and replace it with a watered down commitment.

Today, even the Welsh Government is supporting the abolition of tolls in its own amendment to the motion, an indication perhaps of the influence of Welsh Liberal Democrats Minister, Kirsty Williams.

Where the Liberal Democrats lead, the others follow.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Are the energy companies ripping us off?

The Guardian reports that a report commissioned by Energy UK, the industry lobby, has shown that the big six energy companies are extracting larger profits from households than they claimed.

The reports says that the cost of providing a dual fuel bill was £844 this year. However, TheBigDeal.com, a campaign group, say that the average bill was more than £1,000 and could be as much as £1,172 for standard tariff customers. Households on standard tariffs make up 70% of users despite lower rates on offer from shopping around.

They say that the figures suggest profit margins of up to 28% for British Gas, SSE, EDF, E.ON, npower and Scottish Power. That is seven times the 4% figure claimed by the industry and used by Ofgem, the energy regulator.

The business and energy secretary, Greg Clark, plans to meet energy company representatives to discuss this with them. He needs to lay down the law. Energy prices are high enough without companies taking advantage of their customers in this way. In particular the near monopoly position the companies are in cannot be tolerated much longer.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Pressure to stop funding newspapers that hate

The Stop Funding Hate campaign has secured a major victory after Lego announced that it will stop advertising its products in the Daily Mail, following a public campaign calling on big companies to drop adverts from newspapers accused of promoting “hatred, discrimination and demonisation”.

The campaign has been set up to urges advertisers to rethink their ‘support’ for right wing newspapers over what it sees as misleading headlines about child refugees, and the recent ruling by High Court judges that Parliament must be consulted before Article 50 is triggered. It has secured the support of Gary Lineker, who is talking to Walkers Crisps about its advertising in the Sun newspaper.

The Independent says that Lego is the first big company to agree to the campaigners’ demands:

The Co-Op Group has said it is ‘reviewing’ its advertising but other companies have, until now, refused to withdraw their adverts.

John Lewis, another key target of the campaign said: “We fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue but we never make an editorial judgement on a particular newspaper.”

Waitrose and Marks and Spencer are also being urged to drop their Christmas advertising in certain tabloids.

Lego spokesperson Roar Rude Trangbaek told The Independent: "We spend a lot of time listening to what children have to say. And when parents and grandparents take the time to let us know how they feel, we always listen just as arefully.

"We are both humbled and honoured to see how much consumers all over the world express their care for our company and our brand. And we will continuously do our very best to live up to the trust and faith that people all around the world show us every day.

"The agreement with The Daily Mail has finished and we have no plans to run any promotional activity with the newspaper in the foreseeable future."

This campaign seems to be a very worthy one and I, for one will be reviewing my use of products and brands which advertise in newspapers that print lies so as to promote hate, discrimination and the demonisation of minorities.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Trump and Brexit, the racist backlash

Many people have already drawn comparisons between the victory of Donald Trump in the USA and the vote to leave the EU here. Common themes include an alienated and disillusioned middle class voting against the establishment and a strong desire for change.

Trump's victory was achieved on the back of a racist and misogynist narrative. In the former case that also has parallels with Brexit. And just as the number of incidents of racial abuse increased after our referendum, so they appear to have also multiplied in the USA.

The Independent reports that more than 200 incidents of harassment have been reported since Donald Trump won the presidency.

The paper says that as communities of colour, and others frightened by Tuesday’s result, reel from the election of Trump, reports suggest there have been a flood of incidents of harassment and abuse since Tuesday:

The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a watchdog group that tracks and monitors extremism in the US, said it had collated more than 200 such incidents in the three days since Mr Trump was elected. It said there also reports of misogynist incidents and abuse.

“Pulling from news reports, social media, and direct submissions at the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s website, [we] counted 201 incidents of election-related harassment and intimidation across the country as of Friday 11 November at 5pm,” the group said.

“These range from anti-Black to anti-woman to anti-LGBT incidents. There were many examples of vandalism and epithets directed at individuals.

“Often, types of harassment overlapped and many incidents, though not all, involved direct references to the Trump campaign. Every incident could not be immediately independently verified.”

The group said that one of the locations where such incidents were most commonly reported were in schools for pupils up to the age of 12. At one school, in Maple Grove, Minnesota, racist and pro-Trump graffiti was found in the school lavatories.

A report from Colorado detailed how the words “Death to Diversity” was written on a banner displayed on a school library. The report said that white male students were going up to women saying it was now “legal to grab them by the pussy”.

It is deeply disturbing that not only is the world a much more dangerous place since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but it is also a far less tolerant place as well.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The bad news the Government hid behind the election of Trump

The Independent has an interesting article looking at some of the news and reports released by the UK Government this week that appear to have slipped under the radar as revealed by Liberal Democrats leader, Tim Farron.

These include a report released on the day of the American election results in which the Ministry of Justice concluded that the treatment of transgender people in courts, probation and prison services “had not kept apace with development of a more general understanding of the issues surrounding gender in society”.

Another example is the Government revealing in a written statement earlier this week that they have implemented changes to the civil service compensation scheme – despite 95 per cent of civil servants and unions representing them disagreeing with the proposed reforms.

Then there was a written statement which revealed that the Ministry of Defence had been forced to ask for £438 million from the Government’s emergency reserves to pay top-up a compensation scheme for members of the armed forces, after an “administrative error” by Her Majesty’s Treasury.

On Tuesday ministers were accused of abandoning flagship pledges to electrify major rail lines. TA written statement revealed that upgrades of key routes to Bristol, Oxford and Berkshire have been “deferred” after spending spiralled out of control, prompting speculation they will never happen.

The Department for Education quietly slipped out statistics on the number of ‘coasting’ schools. In the Queen’s speech, the government said it planned to convert these so-called coasting schools into academies. According to the Government a ‘coasting’ school is one that over time does not support its pupils to fulfill their potential.

But the data in Dfe report claims that in the primary sector a high proportion of academies than non-academies are likely to be named as coasting.

Finally, Home Secretary Amber Rudd confirmed that people will continue to be detained at British ports, airports and international railway stations without there being any grounds for suspicion that the person is involved in terrorism or any other crime.

Ms Rudd also announced she wants to bring forward legislation to ensure terror suspects admitted to hospital could have this time removed from their detention, giving police and security forces more time to question them.

This would apply to suspects arrested without a warrant, who can be detained for up to 48 hours without charge and for up to a week for further questioning, with the approval of a judge.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose as Donald Trump would not say.

Friday, November 11, 2016

RIP Leonard Cohen

2016 has been a dreadful, dreadful year.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Will cost overrun threaten the electrification of the mainline to Swansea?

The Western Mail reports on the finding by the National Audit Office that the spiralling cost of modernising the Great Western rail line has reached £5.6 billion. They say that the figure represents a £2.1 billion increase since 2013.

The National Audit Office's Chief Executive, Amyas Morse commented: "The department's failure to plan and manage all the projects which now make up the Great Western Route Modernisation industry programme in a sufficiently joined-up way, combined with weaknesses in Network Rail's management of the infrastructure programme, has led to additional costs for the taxpayer."

The report says that inadequate planning and unrealistic assumptions have contributed to delays and a huge rise in costs. Specifically, the cost of electrification between Cardiff and Maidenhead has risen by £1.2bn since 2014 and now stands at £2.8bn, an increase of 70% against the 2014 estimate.

What is most worrying about this report is how it will impact on electrifying the stretch between Cardiff and Swansea, which is envisaged to take place between 2019 and 2024 but which is not yet committed.

One MP believes that the failure to manage this project properly and the overspend puts that final stage at risk. Not only is there no firm date for that work, but we now need an assessment of whether it will even now go ahead.

This is a matter the Minister needs to provide reassurance on urgently.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

BNP and EDL to join Farage on march

In 1922, Mussolini and 30,000 followers marched on Rome and effectively seized power. In 2016, the acting leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage has pledged to lead 100,000 people in a march in an attempt to intimidate the Supreme Court into ruling in a particular way.

I cannot see the judges in the Supreme Court being impressed enough to change anything, but Farage is entitled to have his say and so are his followers.

Interestingly, Huffington Post report that some of Britain’s biggest far-right groups have said that they will march with Farage and other Brexiteers in this endeavour.

The British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) are among the biggest groups planning to send delegates to protest the last week's ruling:

BNP leader Adam Walker told The Huffington Post UK that he and many of the party’s members would be making an appearance.

“The BNP has campaigned to leave the EU since 1982,” he said. “We mobilised our core voters and others in the successful referendum, and we will step up our campaign to Leave the EU until the government delivers on the will of the people and triggers Article 50.

“Anybody who believes in democracy should be on that march regardless of how they voted... This is a fight to uphold the very integrity of our democracy.”

A representative of the EDL also told The Huffington Post UK that many of its members would be “actively joining” all efforts to put pressure on Article 50 being triggered.

When asked if it was being represented at the demo, the spokesperson said: “The EDL as an organisation will not, as yet be joining a march.

“We have a policy to follow our mission statement, but many of our members will be actively joining all available efforts to push our government to invoke Article 50.

“We support any of our members doing so and I personally will be continuing to fight for our independence from the EU.”

Liberty GB, which fielded a candidate in murdered MP Jo Cox’s constituency who suggested her death was a “false flag”, also posted about the protest, writing: “Be sure to join this march”.

It is said that you shall be known by those you associate with. In UKIP's case their associations speak volumes.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The futility of challenging the referendum result

There is no doubt in my mind that the referendum on whether to remain in the EU was won on a false prospectus.

That misrepresentation included the high-profile claim that the EU was costing £350 million a week, a claim that Vote Leave continued to use despite repeated ticking offs by the UK Statistics Authority.

There was also the alleged threat of 76 million Turks on our doorstep, a mixture of racism, muslim-phobia, and downright misrepresentatoin that swayed many voters in the final week.

However, whereas misrepresentation on that scale is illegal in a General Election, or indeed any other election, the UK Government failed to include such a measure in the legislation that triggered the Brexit referendum.

That is why I am puzzled by this report in the Independent that a complaint against Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns has been  submitted by academic experts in electoral law, who have suggested “corrupt campaigning practices” were used by campaigners and that the Crown Prosecution Service is considering that complaint.

The Crown Prosecution Service have to look into every complaint of course and it is not for me to tell them how to do their job, however I cannot see any scenario whereby the referendum will be re-run on the basis of those falsehoods.

Politically though it is a different matter. The fact that a narrow majority for Brexit was secured on a false premise legitimises those who want full Parliamentary scrutiny of the process and a vote by MPs on Article 50.

The people spoke in large numbers after a long and heated campaign, it is now time for cool scrutiny of what follows and a further vote by the population of the UK on an actual proposal that will not be so suscepitble to distortion by cynical popularists.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Time to address our housing crisis

Today's Guardian reports concerns by the CBI on an issue that I have been warning about for some time, namely that the country is facing a housing crisis based on a failure to supply enough houses in the right sectors to meet demand.

The paper says that business leaders have urged the government to tackle the housing shortage by expanding the rental sector and creating incentives for older homeowners to vacate large properties:

The CBI set out 10 recommendations to get more people into suitable housing ahead of the publication of a white paper by the Department for Communities and Local Government on tackling the housing crisis.

Warning that the status quo is “clearly unsustainable”, the employers’ lobby group called for a “step change” in housebuilding, including the creation of more rental homes, if the government is to meet its ambition of a million new homes by 2020.

“Home ownership will remain an aspiration for many, but is not the only answer. While there is great value in giving those who aspire to buy their own home the opportunity to do so, it is important that government is also encouraging a wide range of new housing tenures to be delivered that will be of benefit for all,” the CBI said.

This is not just a problem in England, as Wales has equal challenges and needs to respond in a similar way. The jury is out as to whether the Welsh Government's target of 20,000 new affordable social homes by 2021 will be sufficient to meet this challenge.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The contradiction at the heart of Government immigration policy

At the heart of the Brexit process is a desire by many leave voters and MPs to restrict immigration. It is the main obstacle to us remaining within the single market after we leave the EU even though more than half of all immigrants come from outside the EU.

Ironically, despite the nirvana predicted by many Brexit campaigners and their assertion that having left the EU countries will be lining up to do trade deals with us, the desire to restrict immigration could prove a major obstacle to achieving those aims.

The Independent reports that Theresa May has been told that her tough stance on immigration could harm any chances of a post-Brexit trade deal with India:

A delegation of 40 business leaders will accompany the Prime Minister on a two-day visit to India today in which the Prime Minister hopes to set in motion the possibility of a free trade deal that can be signed as quickly as possible once the UK leaves the EU.

But the Prime Minister will face difficult questions about changes in UK visa arrangements for Indian workers and students, as the Home Office seeks to drive down non-EU migration figures, which already account for more than half of all migration to the UK.

And her visit has been overshadowed by comments from Dinesh Patnaik, India's High Commissioner in London, who said:

"Students, tourists and short-term visitors are not migrants under any definition.

"Post-Brexit, you need Indians. Our tourists… don't come to Britain due to difficult visa conditions."

This post-Brexit world is looking to be far more difficult than Leave campaigners predicted.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Is our constitution under threat?

Unlike the United States of America the UK does not have a written constitution. Instead we rely on legal precedent and a series of Acts of Parliament, any one of which can upset the balance of the rights we have enjoyed for centuries. The attempts by successive governments to intrude on our privacy by extending legal surveillance is a good example of this.

Not having a written constitution also means that the subject is not taught in school in the same way as it is in the USA and people's understanding of the conventions on which our liberties are based is sketchy at best. On the basis of the latest controversy over a High Court ruling it appears that lack of understanding also applies to the media, MPs, leading politicians and many others on whom we rely to uphold and protect the British constitution.

The recent fuss over the ruling that the Government cannot use the Royal Prerogative to subvert an Act of Parliament and that MPs must vote on Article 50 has created an existential crisis for our constitution. The fact that the Government of the day is determined to press on and challenge what is a very clear and fair ruling on the basis that a referendum has narrowly given them carte blanche to act as they wish has echoes of some of the more dodgy dictatorships from the last century.

The role of the judiciary is in fact very clear in our unwritten constitution. They are an independent body of people who interpret and put into effect the laws that are passed by Parliament, who are in turn using their democratic mandate. In other words judges are not subverting the will of the people, they are putting it into effect.

No Government can pick and choose which laws it wants to obey and which rulings they agree with or not. To do so really is setting us on the path to dictatorship. That is why the silence of Justice Secretary, Liz Truss was so regrettable yesterday. It is her role to defend the judiciary and she failed to step up to the mark to do that.

When a Government seeks to subvert our constitution, override an Act of Parliament through the use of the Royal Prerogative and stays silent on criticism of judges doing their job, then we really are in the throes of a constitutional crisis.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Will a snap General Election really change anything?

Today's media is packed with over-the-top reactions to yesterday's High Court ruling that Theresa May cannot invoke Article 50 so as to start formal exit negotiations with the EU without Parliament's support.

A number of MPs and newspapers have gone completely over the top, alleging that unelected Judges are seeking to subvert the will of the British people, and issuing grave warnings if MPs try to derail the process. But isn't this what they were arguing for all along, that British courts and the British Parliament should reassert their sovereignty?

Robert Peston sums it up on his Facebook page:

It is spectacularly delicious that leading Brexiteers are arguing that the High Court today got it wrong in ruling that we cannot leave the EU without the assent of Parliament - in that almost their entire campaign to get us out of the EU was that British courts and Westminster must be sovereign, and no longer subjugated to Brussels.

We'll also hear plenty from them about a corrupt stitch up by the pro-European establishment to frustrate the revealed will of the British people that we need to be out of Europe.

But the question for Brexiteers is why on earth they want courts, MPs and Lords to have more independent power if those pillars of the British state are all so appallingly twisted and feeble.

I think that it is very clear that the UK Parliament is not going to overrule the result of the referendum. What is not clear though is what exactly was voted through on 23rd June and how it should be implemented. Did the British public vote for hard Brexit or soft Brexit? Do they want us to be part of the single market or not?

It has been left to the UK Government and MPs to decide that. In my view the public should have a second vote on what has been agreed at the end of that process so they can accept or reject it.

All of this is too democratic for many Brexiteers of course, who are clinging to a narrow majority in a less-than-clear referendum as justification for imposing their own idea of Brexit on us, preferably without scrutiny and without MPs having any say in the matter. That truly would be a subversion of our democratic process and of the British constitution.

And then there is the speculation that this court ruling will lead to an early General Election. That may well be the case but how will it change anything? The last time a government went to the polls asking 'who runs Britain?' it did not end well. In fact that is how we got our first referendum on EU membership.

But whether Theresa May gets re-elected with a thumping majority or not, that result will not reverse the constitutional reality determined by three judges yesterday. Parliament will still need to vote on Article 50 and there will have to be scrutiny and a vote on the final deal.

Only an Act of Parliament can rewrite the British constitution, a General Election is just a first step towards that goal. And does the Prime Minister really want to go to the country on a platform of ignoring the rule of law when it suits her? That really is a path to dictatorship and a totalitarian state.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Osborne's u-turn on immigration

According to the Independent George Osborne has rejected Theresa May’s suggestion that immigration causes unemployment by noting that the claim is contradicted by “hard data”.

According to the paper the former chancellor said the claim, included in the Prime Minister’s Tory conference speech last month, “doesn’t really stack up” because of simultaneous record employment and immigration to the UK.

Ms May claimed to Tory delegates at the start of October that people across Britain found “themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration” – and that this was a reason for restricting immigration.

This is quite a u-turn for Osborne. When he was in Government the Conservative side of the coalition pushed very hard to restrict immigration despite resistance from the likes of Vince Cable, who recognised that we need immigrants to grow the economy.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

UKIP infiltration proposal has shades of Mussolini

Mussolini famously replaced all historical material in Italian schools with pro-fascist renditions, emphasizing the glory and power of Italy, while simultaneously banning the vast majority of other books that might conflict with this propaganda. His intention was to produce an admittedly highly literate generation who were sympathetic to his policy aims.

How then is that different to the proposal by UKIP leadership contender, Suzanne Evans that Ukip activists should sign up to train as teachers so that they can influence what children are taught from an early age?

According to the Independent the party’s deputy chair, told a gathering of Ukip activists that “young minds are formed in schools” and that more of the party’s supporters should enter the profession.

She proposed that UKIP-aligned teachers conduct a programme of entryism into the National Union of Teachers (NUT) with a view to making sure more teachers having contact with children were “good ‘kippers”.

Asked about how she would increase the level of patriotism amongst the British public, Ms Evans told activists: “I think I’d like to start, actually – because young minds are formed in schools – with our national curriculum.

The paper adds that another leadership candidate, London Assembly member Peter Whittle, told the same meeting that the law should be changed so that “every school has a union jack and a picture of the Queen”.

Although these suggestions may sound straightforward enough to the average UKIP supporter they are in fact quite sinister. Schools are there to educate people and prepare them for the real world, not to indoctrinate them with political propaganda.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Brexit and the dangers around the Nissan comfort letter

All the indications are that the UK Government are going to refuse to publish details of the assurances given to Nissan that allowed the firm to invest further in its Sunderland plant. It may be that this refusal is because Ministers are embarrassed at how they are having to circumnavigate Brexit, but more likely it will be down to a fear that everybody else will want the same assurances and that may become very costly indeed.

Now the Guardian report that Japanese companies based in Britain have already started to receive offers from other European countries and could postpone investment decisions if Theresa May’s government fails to negotiate a close economic relationship with the EU:

Haruki Hayashi, president of the Japanese chambers of commerce in Britain and the European CEO of Mitsubishi, who said businesses needed more than “general reassurances” if his country’s investment presence in Britain was to be maintained.

Speaking to MPs in parliament, including the Brexit secretary, David Davis, Hayashi said that in a complex and interdependent world, the decision to leave the EU would have a serious impact on individuals and businesses.

His visit came after it emerged that the government had written to Nissan to promise it would remain competitive following the Brexit process.

Hayashi emphasised the importance of factors such as membership of the single market and customs union.

“Some examples of areas of concern for Japanese companies include validity of the single passport system, the free movement of skilled workers between the UK and different parts of Europe and whether the continuation of the current environment of uncertainty will lead the Japanese companies to postpone further investment decisions,” he told a reception organised by the Japanese embassy in London at which dozens of companies were represented.

It could also mean companies would seriously consider relocating to other countries, he added, urging the government to speak to Japanese business figures throughout the renegotiation process.

“Some Japanese companies have already started receiving offers from alternative European host countries,” said Hayashi.

“I cannot speak on behalf of each individual member of the chamber but the message coming through loud and clear is that more than general reassurances are called for at this stage to ensure that the Japanese investment presence in the UK is not diminished for lack of consultation and information sharing.”

Those who say that the economy have survived the referendum decision to leave the EU are being premature. We have not even invoked Article 50 yet. There is a long way to go before we can form a proper judgement on the impact of Brexit on the UK.

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