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Monday, December 18, 2017

Defending the Tory Brexit rebels

I suspect that most regional and national newspapers are getting letters from Brexiteers anxious to excoriate the eleven Tory MPs who voted against the government whip to ensure that Parliament gets to vote on the final deal with the EU. The South Wales Evening Post certainly did and here is a letter I have sent in response:

In her recent letter (16 December), Caroline West is quite wrong to berate those MPs who voted to amend the Brexit bill so as to give Parliament a say on the final deal with Europe.

The 2016 referendum was advisory and gave the Government a mandate to negotiate a withdrawal from the European Union.

Voters did not though offer any view on what the terms of that withdrawal should be, nor on any concessions that may be offered by either side.

As is right in a representative democracy they left that decision to MPs, who will be armed with all the facts and will be able to make an informed choice.

The whole issue of mandate was of course muddied by the 2017 General Election.

Theresa May went to the country asking for a majority to force through her version of Brexit. The voters said no and insisted that she work with other parties. The amendment to the Brexit Bill, which Caroline West so abhors is entirely consistent with that verdict.

Recent events have demonstrated that the current Government is not competent enough to deliver on their promises over Brexit.

Negotiations with Europe have been a shambles, with some Ministers obsessing more about using private jets to travel to Brussels than on the intricacies of our country's legal obligations.

In addition, the Government has shown that it cannot deliver on promises made to the voters during the referendum campaign, including the £350m a week extra for the NHS.

Because of that it is the duty of every elected MP to scrutinise closely the deal that is finally negotiated and to ensure that it is in the country's best interests. In fact I would argue that voters themselves should have that final say. After all Brexit was about us taking back control.

Finally, Caroline West needs to reflect on where exactly this process is taking us. It is becoming clear that exiting the EU is going to leave the UK more isolated in the world than at any time since the reformation.

We will be at the mercy of people like Donald Trump, who knowing how desperate we are for a trade deal, will take advantage to force many other concessions from us.

Far from taking back control, Brexit has mortgaged our future to others and left us vulnerable to blackmail and coercion from countries we might once have called allies.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Why net neutrality underpins our freedoms

The internet is the world's purest democracy. On the web we are all equal and our opinions equally valid. Unfortunately, that egalitarianism also spawns behaviour which reflects the worst aspects of humanity, including stalking, trolling and vile abuse. We take the good with the bad (law-breaking excepted) because to do otherwise would compromise our own freedoms.

Despite being a commercial concern in its own right, the internet remains a community to which we can all have access in one way or another. It is a community in which a small blog or a single tweet can have a huge impact, in which one ordinary person's opinion is as valid as that of a Prime Minister and where big corporations compete on a level playing field with one person operations.

That happens because the companies who enable us to access the web are not allowed to discriminate in favour of one user over another. You cannot buy preferential treatment by an ISP because to do so would break the terms under which they are allowed to provide that service. However, if Donald Trump gets his own way all of that is going to change.

As Jonathan Freedland explains in the Guardian, Thursday’s decision by a Trump appointee to scrap the rules governing access to the internet known as “net neutrality” could affect the online realm inhabited by all of us:

Put simply, until now your internet service provider has been obliged to treat all websites equally, so that a neighbourhood blog is just as accessible as a major corporate site. Your broadband provider has had to be neutral between blokeinhispottingshed.com and Amazon, and not operate a fast lane for one and a slow lane for the other.

Thanks to Trump and his man at the Federal Communications Commission, that obligation is binned. Now those ISPs can offer premium access to some and deny it to others. The big players will be able to pay the extra cash to ensure they stay in the fast lane, but the cost will shut out startups. The next challenger to Netflix or Facebook may be strangled at birth by prohibitive fast-lane tolls.

That’s a loss for those would-be innovators and for us, who will never see what they might have produced. Power online will be ever more concentrated in the hands of a few giants. But there’s a more direct political dimension. Take the blog maintained by the residents of Grenfell Tower, which warned of disaster before it struck. To ensure their warnings were heard, their US equivalents would now have to find a home on one of the mega-platforms, posting their material on, say, Facebook.

But how confident could they be that Facebook, if confronted by an irate local council, would continue to host and shield those residents, or people like them? A defining feature of the internet was that it was open and a broadly level playing field. Thanks to Trump, it will now be more equal for some – including the rich corporations – than for others.

Trump may not be able to keep his big promises on Obamacare and the Mexican wall but in small ways like this he is shifting the balance of power for everybody. And for those who believe that this is just America and it won't affect us, then think on.

Most of our internet companies and domains have footholds in America. For now the European Community is maintaining net neutrality, but how long will they be able to hold out against the economic might of the USA. And of course we are leaving the EU. Our Brexiteers are closely aligned to Trump. The ending of net neutrality in the UK may only be a few years away.

Money has always bought influence, now it will be able to suppress inconvenient truths as well. Our world has just become a less free place.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Balancing the case for more Welsh Assembly Members

Increasing the number of politicians is never a popular move so I don't expect the very weighty expert report commissioned by the Assembly's Presiding Officer calling for exactly that to gain much traction on doorsteps.

As the Western Mail reports, this tome recommends amongst others that the number of Assembly Members elected to the Senedd should rise from 60 to 89 or 90, that they should be elected by the far more proportional Single Transferable Vote system and that the voting age should be reduced to 16.

I anticipate that the last of these will be the least controversial. Even UKIP appear to be in favour of letting younger people vote. I suspect that the Assembly will be able to find the necessary two thirds majority to increase its own size to 80 but that the adoption of a more sensible voting system will be ditched in favour of one that is more favourable to the ruling Labour Party.

It may though, turn out that the whole exercise has been academic, as already Labour are threatening to kick it into the long grass of their 2019 Welsh Conference, far too late to properly enact the recommendations for the 2021 Assembly elections.

But where should the Welsh Liberal Democrats stand on these proposals. My view is that we need to be wary of them.

The case for a bigger Assembly is actually overwhelming both in terms of comparison with other legislatures and the workload faced by AMs. Good government requires time to properly scrutinise legislation and ministers, but that is not available simply because there are far too few committees, all meeting at the same time to do the job.

This is not an argument to increase the hours worked by AMs, they already give 70 plus each week, but to increase the capacity of the Assembly itself.

The case for more AMs is based on the steady accumulation of law-making powers by the Assembly over the last few years. These powers have been devolved from Westminster. It makes sense therefore that if we need more AMs then there should also be fewer Welsh MPs, as logically their workload will have decreased.

Welsh Liberal Democrats support for these proposals should be based on that quid pro. If one institution gets more politicians, another should have fewer. That way we do not add to the cost of politics,

Secondly, if a bigger Assembly is not going to be more proportional then it should not be supported. We have lived with the compromise d'hondt system now for 18 years. It creates two tiers of Assembly Member and effectively guarantees continuous government by one party.

The people of Wales deserve to get the Assembly they vote for, both politically and geographically and that can only be achieved with a sensible system of election based on STV.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Is no-platforming by the Welsh Assembly turning UKIP into alt-right martyrs?

Because of the age we live in, I feel obliged to preface this post with some qualifications. As anybody who has read this blog will know I detest UKIP and all their works.

Over the years, leading members of that party have been outed as misogynist and racist, They are a party who campaign against Europe and yet milk the EU for the maximum financial benefit and I have lost count of the number of their MEPs who have been prosecuted for allegedly fiddling their expenses.

Their campaign for us to leave the EU was misleading, dishonest and racist, Their odious erstwhile leader, Nigel Farage continues to consort with dubious right-wingers on both side of the Atlantic, whilst pontificating about 'professional politicians', despite being an MEP for 18 years and having stood for Parliament seven times.

Politics and society would be better off if UKIP ceased to exist altogether, however because we are a democracy they have the right to continue to wave their prejudices in our face and to demand support for their increasingly irrelevant views. As a Liberal I will defend that right even if I have to hold my nose whilst doing so.

As these random links show, here, here and here my record on transgender rights is second to none. In stating my opinion on the decision by the Presiding Officer to no-platform a UKIP AM in Plenary for expressing his view on this issue, I do not endorse what he said. In fact I find his view as illiberal and offensive as she does. The issue is the best way to respond to him.

The Presiding Officer's role is to keep order in the Senedd. That includes ruling on unparliamentary language. However, there is a difference between throwing out an AM for a throwaway remark about the royal family and effectively censoring an argument which has offended others.

I have argued in the past that freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend. Once people are allowed to apply their own subjective values to others then we are on a slippery slope to censorship and dictatorship.

It is for this reason that I struggle with the Presiding Officer's decision to ask Gareth Bennett to apologise or withdraw his remarks about transgender rights, and then to ban him from speaking for a year because he refused. I disagree with what he said but will defend his right to say it.

Yes, he has offended a lot of people and upset the cosy consensus in the chamber on these issues, but the purpose of debate is to show up mistaken and flawed arguments for what they are and to rebut them. Surely the correct response would have been to let other AMs do exactly that and then to ignore him for the irrelevance he is.

The Assembly chamber should embrace the principle of free speech where members can stand up and say what they believe and be challenged on it. The Presiding Officer job is to preserve the free flow of ideas not to censor it.

For now, my fear, as expressed by one of my Twitter followers, is that this particular UKIP AM has unwittingly taken a leaf straight out of the Trump playbook and that by banning him the PO has played into his hands. She has not so much upheld politically-correct views as created an alt-right martyr.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

UKIP to face tribunal over EU referendum campaign

The Guardian reports that UKIP is to face a tribunal over its use of analytics during the EU referendum after refusing to cooperate with an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The Information Commissioner says that inquiry has been launched because she is concerned about invisible processing of data ‘behind the scenes’, including 'algorithms, analysis, data matching, profiling that involves people’s personal information'. She adds: "When the purpose for using these techniques is related to the democratic process, the case for a high standard of transparency is very strong,”

The ICO had issued four information notices, formally ordering organisations to disclose information, including one to UKIP, who have now appealed the notice to the information rights tribunal. Apparently, they don't want to face criminal sanctions if it is shown that they have broken the law. So it is the same old story as far as they are concerned: one rule for UKIP, another rule for everybody else.

In fact this inquiry is very important. In particular, there is a need for transparency after huge sums of money were diverted to a Canadian firm, AggregateIQ, which is being investigated by Canada's Information Commissioner as to whether it is compliant with privacy legislation in that jurisdiction:

The Electoral Commission is separately investigating whether Vote Leave, the lead campaign for the leave vote in the referendum, broke spending laws by coordinating spending with other campaign groups.

The investigation hinges on Vote Leave’s decision to make donations totalling £625,000 to Grimes, then a 23-year-old fashion student, in the final days of the referendum. Grimes spent the entirety of the money with AggregateIQ.

Separately to the money it donated to Grimes, Vote Leave spent £2.7m, around 40% of its total spending of £6.7m, with AggregateIQ. As the designated leave campaigning organisation, its spending was capped by law at £7m.

Grimes, as chair of a different campaign group called BeLeave, had a spending cap of £700,000 and spent £675,000 in total. The source of £625,000 of this money was Vote Leave.

It has also emerged that a millionaire hedge fund manager, Anthony Clake donated £50,000 to Darren Grimes - money that also went to AggregateIQ - having been advised to make the donation by the Brexit-backing campaign group Vote Leave.

Clake told the Guardian that he had intended to give the money to Vote Leave, as the official leave campaign, but was encouraged by the group not to do so because “they were close to their spending limits”.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Clake.

If we value our democratic processes we must ensure that nobody is able to circumvent the rules so as to buy the result they wanted. The inquiries by the Electoral Commission and the ICO therefore must be allowed to go ahead unimpeded and they should have all the sanctions they need at their disposal if wrong-doing is proven.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A ray of hope from Alabama

Waking up this morning to news that Democrat, Doug Jones has won the special Senate election in Alabama, albeit very narrowly, is the best news I have had for some time. Is this the start of a backlash that will deny the Republicans a majority in the House and the Senate in Autumn 2019?

Mr. Jones was helped by the allegations of sexual impropriety levelled against his opponent, despite which Judge Roy Moore still managed to secure 63% support from those white women who cast a ballot.

However, the fact Trump publicly backed Moore in a State that he won convincingly in the Presidential race, enables us to take a wider view and class this as a snub for the President as well as a defeat for the Republicans.

My euphoria has been dampened by this article in the Guardian reporting that the US ambassador to the UK expects Donald Trump to go ahead with a working visit to the UK in the new year, despite a recent Twitter row with Theresa May over the terror threat posed by Muslims in the UK.

This is not expected to be a State visit as the Queen is likely to be preoccupied with preparations for a Commonwealth summit next year. Nevertheless, Trump appearing on these shores will not be popular. The Independent says that around half of the British public think the UK must scrap its invitation for a full state visit to Donald Trump following his support for a British far-right group.

Personally, in whatever capacity Trump sets foot on these shores, I believe that day should be declared a public holiday to maximise turnout for the inevitable protests. And the invitation to the President for a full State visit should be withdrawn.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Labour still on the fence over Brexit

As if it were not bad enough that the Tories are screwing up Brexit, not being able to even deliver a basic agreement, never mind the goodies that were misleadingly promised during the referendum, it is becoming more and more apparent that Labour don't appear to be willing to get off the fence and offer any form of opposition to this omnishambles.

As the Guardian reports, Jeremy Corbyn is determined to resist pressure to spell out in more detail what Brexit settlement Labour would support, despite a series of comments in recent days suggesting the party is edging closer to advocating continued single market membership.

They add that Labour sources said Corbyn and his closest allies were keen to avoid placating ardent remain voters at the expense of Brexit backers in core Labour seats. They know that they will eventually have to give a verdict on whatever trade deal is reached with the EU27 next year, but they fear too much detail now could be a hostage to fortune.

In the meantime various Labour spokespeople continue to sing from different hymn sheets leaving everybody confused as to what exactly their official policy is. It is little wonder that they continue to trail the Tories in the polls at a time when a bunch of muppets could do a better job of running Britain.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Arrogance and bad faith: A Brexit Tale

Nobody needs me to elaborate on the vagueness and contradictions inherent in the deal that Theresa May has struck with the EU when it is set against her government's determination to leave that institution, whilst keeping the United Kingdom intact. Needless to say at some stage a decision will have to be made and stuck to.

However, for one Government Minister, the compromise half-agreement the Prime Minister signed off on last week is a sore he cannot help but keep picking. Brexit Secretary, David Davis seems determined to wreck any hope of agreement (and of a trade deal with Europe) even before the ink is dry on the paper.

As the Guardian reports, Davis has clashed with the Irish government after claiming that the Brexit divorce agreement between Britain and the EU was a “statement of intent” rather than something legally enforceable.

They add that the Brexit secretary’s crass comments came in the light of a missive from Downing Street advisers, which told cabinet ministers who campaigned to leave the EU, that promises around full regulatory alignment were “meaningless”.

In addition, Theresa May has also appeared to suggest there was still some flexibility in the deal reached at the end of last week, writing to all Tory MPs to set out the details of the agreement but promising that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

The Irish of course are incensed. They have issued a statement to the effect that “Both Ireland and the EU will be holding the UK to the phase one agreement.” In addition, the Irish deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, highlighted a line in the agreement that said commitments relating to Ireland would be “upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the EU and UK”.

The point is of course that if the UK cannot bring itself to hold good faith over this fairly flimsy agreement of principle then how can anybody trust them on more substantive treaties, including on trade?

The arrogance, incompetence and stupidity of hard line Brexiteers in Theresa May's cabinet are threatening the very future of the UK economy. Their actions could torpedo any deal with Europe and leave the rest of the World wondering whether it is worth even talking to us.

The need for a second referendum on whatever emerges from these talks is becoming even more urgent. And it is crucial that the public have an 'exit from Brexit' option on that ballot paper.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Is an obsessive Government ignoring bread and butter issues?

I have said it before on this blog, it has been said by professional commentators and now the public are saying it too (or at least that is what the polls say), the obsession of ministers with Brexit means that they are neglecting other challenges facing our country.

The Independent reports that the large majority of British people think the Government’s struggle for a Brexit deal has become so all-encompassing that other crucial challenges have been forgotten about.

The papers says that its exclusive survey by BMG Research showed some 60 per cent of people believe “important domestic issues” are being ignored by ministers as Brexit relentlessly diverts their attention, with problems faced by the NHS and the housing market consistently appearing in surveys of voter concerns:

The data is a stark warning for a party stung at the election by a public tired of austerity, angry about the housing crisis and worried about the state of the NHS.

In October, it emerged that the civil service will have to hire an extra 8,000 staff to deal specifically with Brexit, a sign of how its resources are being diverted towards the challenges of leaving the EU.
Nearly 3,000 new posts have already been created

to help face what will be the biggest administrative challenge they have faced for half a century. Brexit Secretary David Davis told Cabinet colleagues that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will also have to recruit between 3,000 and 5,000 new members of staff next year.

If the new recruits earn an average of £50,000 each, the wage bill would top £400m. But that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the £35bn to £39bn the UK will have to pay the EU as part of its divorce settlement – a figure many expect to rise higher.

That also does not include the cost of new technology and extra infrastructure at borders that may be needed, which Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested could divert funds from the NHS and education.

It is not just the Tories who need to heed these findings. My party, the Liberal Democrats also have to listen. We have quite rightly branded ourselves as an anti-Brexit party but Vince Cable and his spokespeople also have to be talking just as loudly about our solutions for the crisis that is affecting education, the health service and housing as well.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Michael Gove and the art of spin

There is no point shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted but it is an activity that Michael Gove appears to be fairly fond of if this Guardian article is anything to go by.

The paper reports Gove's statement that voters will be able to force changes to an EU withdrawal deal at the next election if they do not like it:

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Gove said: “The British people will be in control. If the British people dislike the agreement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”

He said that after a transition period, the UK would have “full freedom to diverge from EU law on the single market and customs union”.

The next General Election is due in 2022, that is three years after the 29th March 2019 invocation of Article 50 and one year after the end of the two year transition period. By 2022 everything will be done and dusted and there will be no going back.

Of course there was a General Election this year that effectively rejected Theresa May's hard Brexit. If Gove is serious about giving people a meaningful say on the final deal then he will be advocating a referendum that allows us the choice of accepting what is negotiated or exiting from Brexit altogether.

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