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Friday, March 23, 2018

Welsh UKIP leader indulges in childs play

Over at the New European, there is a report of the latest embarrassing episode for UKIP in Wales. They report that Welsh UKIP leader and disgraced former Tory Minister, Neil Hamilton has complained to the BBC over a light-hearted segment on Radio 4's World At One in which children were asked for their views on Brexit:

"The segment was completely biased and absurd," fumed Mr Hamilton, who once danced in a perspex box on TV while Johnny Vegas poured fish on his head.

"Every child who featured on the programme was anti-Brexit and the segment lacked any form of political balance. The interviewer, Tomos Morgan, failed to question any of the patently childish answers given to him."

It's a fairly strong argument from the man who, in 2006, recorded a World Cup song with his wife called England Are Jolly Dee.

Not content with just a letter, Mr. Hamilton decided to raise the matter in First Minister's questions in the Welsh Assembly, generating much mirth on all sides and some AMs placing their heads in their hands in despair. You can watch the actual question here.

Neil Hamilton: Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. As I was on my way to Cardiff yesterday, I was listening to the car radio, and the World at One was on, and, with some incredulity, I heard that the Welsh Government was consulting schoolchildren between the ages of seven and 11 for their views on Brexit—perhaps it shows the level of maturity of the Welsh Government on this issue—and was going to take their opinions into account in formulating policy. I can't believe that this is true, even though I read it subsequently on the BBC website. Amongst those whom I heard on that programme was a nine-year-old who said that she thought leaving the EU was a bad idea, because, 'One of my friends says she wants to be a singer, and if I want to go around the world to see different music, like, she won't be able to because we've left breakfast'—I think she must be a fan of the leader of the opposition's speech at the Conservative Party conference last year. Surely the First Minister must agree that this is an exercise in total fatuity.

Carwyn Jones: Does he have to use a nine-year-old to fight his battles? Are things that bad in UKIP now that he has to criticise the view of a nine-year-old? I can tell you that that view was more coherent than many of the views I heard from people in his own party in the course of the referendum. He seemed to complain that the news item was a 'mawkish puff piece', playing on the—. And I quote:

'playing on the emotions of the listener in order to support the Remainer narrative that the nasty Brexiteers are stopping our children from being able to play with their friends from abroad.'

Now, if that is the level of political debate that the leader of UKIP comes up with, then give me the nine-year-old any day.

Neil Hamilton: Well, actually, that particular reference—[Interruption.] Sorry, Llywydd. Actually, that particular reference referred to an 11-year-old's comment, also broadcast yesterday, where she said that, if we were to leave, a lot of people who have friends in Europe might not be able to get in. 'I'm aware that people can come into the country who may not always do good things, and they can do bad things, but, on the other hand, they do have relatives and friends. It's better to see them in real life than Skyping all the time and stuff.'

Well, these—[Interruption.] These—[Interruption.] It's not I who is bringing young children into the political debate. It's the politicisation of children that is the exercise that the Welsh Government in engaged on. Is it not inappropriate to politicise children in this way in order to pursue the Government's own political agendas?

Carwyn Jones: How does the leader of UKIP think that the parents of those children think of him now? What they will see is a politician in this Chamber belittling the views of their children for his own political purposes. Now, I don't know whether he is deliberately trying to alienate parents from voting for his party, but he's done an excellent job so far.

Neil Hamilton: It's not to belittle the views of children at all, but the level of maturity that is displayed in those comments of course reflects their age. Perhaps even the First Minister at that age was similarly immature; I don't know. But children of seven to 11, of course, are not yet mature, and their opinions reflect that—even though we all mature and then our opinions are worthy of being listened to, as serious comments in political debate, I find it absolutely extraordinary that the Welsh Government is now proposing to take them seriously. We know that teachers—[Interruption.] We know that political education in schools is important, but it's also important that there should be balance, and children should be taught to be critical. Given that the Times Educational Supplement, in 2016, did an opinion poll of teachers that showed that 88 per cent of them were pro remain—75 per cent of teachers; 88 per cent of university lecturers are pro remain—isn't there a danger that, even subconsciously, if political topics of a controversial nature are taught in the classroom that balance is likely to be lost?

Carwyn Jones: Let's see how many votes the leader of UKIP has managed to lose—the votes of teachers, the votes of parents, the votes of governors, the votes of grandparents, all because he's chosen, for reasons that go beyond me, to criticise the maturity of nine and 11-year-olds. We have spent our time in this Chamber, in all parties in fairness, talking about giving children a voice. Now, he's saying—and, David Melding, I heard him say it, and I think the comment is apposite—that children should be seen and not heard, which is exactly what the leader of UKIP is saying. Perhaps he may want to reflect on the fact, in managing to upset many thousands of people across Wales, that, actually, children do deserve a voice.

When UKIP start to belittle the views of children to make their point then it is clear that they have lost the argument. This was a new low from a politician who has built his career on such embarrassing lows.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Not taking back control after all

It doesn't really matter at all where the UK has its passport manufactured providing that the process is secure and good value for money, but that does not preclude us from sniggering at the embarrassment of the Brexiteers and their media cheerleaders at the news that the new, highly symbolic, blue British passports are to be made in Europe.

As the Guardian reports, changing the colour of the UK passport from the burgundy favoured across the EU is regarded by some Brexiters as a powerful symbol of Britain’s restored sovereignty. But it has now been reported that British firm De La Rue lost out to Gemalto, which is listed on the French and Dutch stock exchanges, in the race to win the £490m printing job.

As the Liberal Democrat’s Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, says: “The blue passport saga is turning into a farce. First it was established that we did not have to leave the EU to have blue passports. Now we learn that the passports will be printed by a foreign company. And to add insult to injury, we will pay over the odds for them because the value of the pound has fallen since Brexit and they will have to be imported.”

So much for taking back control.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How Brexit is threatening our security

According to the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, ministers are being 'worryingly complacent' about the complexity of issues to be negotiated with the EU regarding the future security of our country.

As the Independent reports, the committee believes that unless a deal is struck to maintain security and policing cooperation with the EU after Brexit, then the UK could be sleepwalking into a crisis. They say that there are “serious legal, constitutional and political obstacles” that mean an agreement will not be easy to reach, but failure to “urgently” resolve these issues will “seriously undermine” the UK’s security:

The committee said it was concerning that the EU has suggested the UK should lose its place on the Europol board until a deal is agreed, and accused the Government of being “worryingly complacent” about future data sharing.

The report said: “The Government appears to assume that the UK’s dominant role in Europol and other forms of cooperation will make it easy to secure a bespoke future security relationship with the EU, going far beyond any forms of third country involvement to date.

“This attitude, along with lack of planning for alternative scenarios, suggests that the Government is at risk of sleepwalking into a highly detrimental outcome.”

Failure to continue using the European Arrest Warrant and instead having to rely an earlier extradition treaty would be a “catastrophic outcome”, the committee said.

It called on the Government to begin negotiations on a security and policing treaty immediately, and said the UK should be willing to sacrifice its “artificial red lines”, including on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The committee point out that that failure to secure a continuation of the European Arrest Warrant would prevent British authorities from being able to secure the extradition of criminals from EU countries for trial in the UK. It highlighted the case of Zdenko Turtak, who beat and raped a woman in Leeds in 2015. He fled to his native Slovakia before being extradited to the UK under the European Arrest Warrant and jailed for 14 years.

MPs also warned that establishing a new extradition arrangement is likely to run into a series of “significant judicial and legal obstacles”, including the fact that some EU countries, such as Germany and Slovakia, have laws that prevent them extraditing citizens to non-EU countries.

Some of us have been warning about this for some time. Negotiations with the EU are not just about trade but security, aviation, nuclear materials, the impact on the NHS and agriculture and medicine licensing just to name a few. I see little or no indication that our ministers understand this, never mind that they appreciate the complexity and urgency of reaching an agreement.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Is it time to reform council tax?

The Guardian carries details of another interesting report by the Resolution Foundation in which they argue that Council tax is an outdated and regressive levy on households that should be scrapped in favour of a progressive levy on property. It is just a shame that they don't seem to understand that this matter is devolved to the Welsh Government and that it is not for UK Ministers to change the system this side of Offa's Dyke.

The thinktank argue council tax has become almost flat-rated in some areas to leave it resembling the much maligned poll tax of the early 1990s. Laura Gardiner, principal researcher at the foundation says that analysis shows that council tax has “only a very weak link to property values” which means that it is “highly regressive”:

“Someone living in a property worth £100,000 pays around five times as much council tax relative to property value as someone living in a property worth £1m. This is exactly the kind of result that opponents of the poll tax wanted to avoid and in stark contrast to income tax, which increases with incomes in a progressive way so higher earners pay a higher average tax rate,” she said.

The foundation say that the the 2017 reforms implemented in Scotland should be replicated elsewhere in the UK. That would involve increasing council tax rates in the top four bands, generating a little over £1bn. An alternative reform would be a “mansion tax” surcharge of 1% on the value of properties worth more than £2m and 2% on the value of properties above £3m, which would also generate just over £1bn.

These proposals very much mirror work carried out for the Institute for Welsh Affairs by Professor Gerry Holtham, which I reviewed here. In his paper Gerry Holtham described council tax as the ‘misbegotten offspring of political misjudgement and political cowardice’.

He argued however that because Council Tax is levied on property it is hard to avoid, it does not distort economic activity and it is easily understood. Its disadvantage is that it requires regular revaluations to remain relevant, something that only happened once in Wales and never in England due to the political fall-out:

As Gerry Holtham explains, property values, as assessed for these purposes are increasing at a much slower rate than house prices, so that the average council tax on the lowest band, whose properties are worth up to £44,000 amounts to nearly 1.9% of the value of the property. For properties worth over £424,000, the tax is just over 0.5% of capital value.

The solution proposed by the paper is not to throw out the tax altogether but to reform it so as to ‘smooth out the indexation’ and to consider introducing additional tax bands. Gerry Holtham argues that this would lead to gradual change and do away with the need for revaluation.

He argues that a fairer way to levy the tax would be to make it a flat rate plus a proportion of the value of the property, less a property allowance. That would yield similar revenue to the current tax where everybody would end up paying a fraction over 1% of the band value. In other words the tax would be rebalanced so that those in the most expensive properties would pay more.

He says that taxpayers in band D would pay a little more than a pound a week more, whilst those in band A would see their bills fall dramatically. This would lead to a fall in the cost of Council Tax benefit from £242m to just over £190m.

Gerry Holtham suggests that the increase in taxation for those in the higher bands could be ameliorated by other measures. These include removing the single occupant discount and increasing the tax on second homes, a measure already being proposed in the housing bill. In Gwynedd, 10% of the housing stock consists of second homes.

This solution is slightly more complex that the one mooted by the Resolution Foundation but seems to me to be more of a gradual change and one that has benefits both for those living in lower banded houses and also in helping councils and the Welsh Government tackle the rapidly increasing cost of Council Tax benefit.

Surely the time has come for a rethink of Council Tax.

Monday, March 19, 2018

An inauspicious start for the English Homelessness Minister

Yesterday's Observer carried a feature on South Derbyshire MP, Heather Wheeler, who was appointed as the English Minister for homelessness in January. To be fair there are a number of encouraging signs.

For a start, she is visiting projects in other nations of the UK to see how the devolved governments are coping with the problem. In doing so she recognises that Scotland is in a better position because it has more affordable homes in which to rehouse those in need and accepts that supply is a big obstacle to her brief to meet the Conservative manifesto commitment of halving rough sleeping by 2022, and eradicating it by 2027.

Unfortunately, as I reported here, she appears to be in denial as to whether her government will address this issue. It is all very well citing that the government are spending £9bn on affordable housing by March 2021, however when Communities Secretary Sajid Javid is being forced to “surrender” £72 million set aside to build affordable homes because it was “no longer required”, and when the emphasis is on intermediate housing available at 80% of market rent as opposed to the social rents needed by those escaping homelessness, the prospect of a solution to lack of supply does not look promising.

The other good sign is that Ms. Wheeler is seriously looking at the internationally successful housing first model that places the most entrenched rough sleepers in permanent housing before they deal with addiction, mental illness or other challenges. It works on the assumption that people make the most progress when in a stable home, rather than a hostel or shared temporary accommodation.

My concern though is that she appears to be in denial on all the causes of homelessness. Specifically, she tells the paper that she does not know why the number of rough sleepers has increased so significantly in recent years, adding that she does not accept the suggestion that welfare reforms and council cuts had contributed to the rise. I would add in the austerity agenda that has depressed real wages onto that list as well.

Frankly, if she is serious about achieving her goals then she needs to put this ideology to one side and convince her government colleagues to follow suit. If she doesnt then I suspect that the situation will continue to worsen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

New Brexit comic to be launched

Anybody who has been following the spoof Trumpton Twitter account will be delighted to learn from today's Observer that its progenitor, illustrator and author Mike Dicks is to launch a Brexit comic featuring some of the regular Twitter characters, including the Reverend May and her Brexit Gang, David Dealin’ Davis and Boris “Captain Brexit” Johnson.

The comic will go into circulation next month, loosely based on the classic 1960s children’s TV programme Trumpton. Mike Dicks has raised £4,400 via crowdfunding to pay for the first edition, which will be posted to donors and supporters by 1 April:

Dicks, a former independent TV producer, began with caricatures of Ukip leader Nigel Farage in the run-up to the 2016 referendum.

“I’d been worrying about him and Ukip,” Dicks told the Observer. “I kept thinking about how Farage was looking back to a golden age, but he’s about the same age as me, so what era is he referencing? My recollection of the 1960s and 70s was that in many ways it was a rather shit time.

“He made me think of Trumpton, which was about an old-fashioned town with no foreigners – except Mr Antonio the ice-cream man, who was almost run out of town – and an autocratic mayor. It seemed the sort of place and sort of Britain Farage was nostalgic about, so I started a Trumpton_Ukip Twitter account to gently mock him, his supporters and their backward-looking views. It had a couple of hundred followers at most, enjoying my silly jokes.”

The paper says that only 13 episodes of Trumpton were made, but many still remember Captain Flack’s fire brigade roll call: “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub.”

Dicks’s Trumpton has a different crew: “May, May, Johnson and Gove, Macron, Merkel and Mogg” – the two May characters reflecting the prime minister’s shifting position on Brexit.

Who was it who said that laughter is the best medicine? It certainly helps to have a sense of humour, a lesson that UKIP MEP David Coburn might want to take on board.

He was apparently unaware that the Trumpton UKIP account was a spoof and urged his 9,000 Twitter followers to complain about what he considered to be a “fake” UKIP account. He attempted to have it shut down, threatening to sue Dicks under European copyright laws.

“It suddenly went from a couple of hundred followers to 20,000,” Dicks said. “Then dozens of other Twitter accounts sprang up mocking UKIP and we were in the newspapers, so it all blew up in his face.”

This comic sounds like it is worth subscribing too.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Secret report on Carl Sargeant will not be published

The BBC report that Wales' most senior civil servant has refused to publish a redacted version of a report into whether the sacking of Carl Sargeant was leaked before a cabinet reshuffle.

She is concerned that to do so would have implications for future investigations, specifically it would prevent future witnesses from being totally candid if they thought their evidence were to be made public.

On the face of it that is a valid decision. I would expect nothing less from the Welsh Government's top bureaucrat. But politically it is a disastrous for the First Minister as it leaves the events around his disastrous reshuffle lost in a cloud of intrigue and speculation. That is evident from the reaction of the leader of the Welsh Conservatives:

Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies said: "This is simply unacceptable and bitterly disappointing. "The will of the National Assembly was clear and the excuses for not publishing the report are at best weak, and at worst plain obstructive."

He said the conclusion of the inquiry, which is repeated in the letter, "once again invites more speculation".

"The longer this facade continues the more damaging it is for the Welsh Government, and our democratic processes cannot continue to be marred by persistent stonewalling, particularly when matters of significant public interest are at stake," he added.

The facts appear to be that some journalists and lobbyists knew about the sacking of Carl Sargeant before it was officially made public, possibly before Carl was told. If there was no leak as the Permanent Secretary asserts then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the briefing was sanctioned.

Does the report address this point? If not, why not? And if it does, surely that fact and the name of the person who authorised the leak should be made public so we can make up our own mind as to its impact on Carl's state of mind and what such a process says about the way he was treated within government.

Friday, March 16, 2018

How Brexit has left the UK isolated and vulnerable

There was an interesting intervention in the ongoing saga of the Sergei Skripal attack in the Guardian yesterday, in which the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevičius is reported as saying that Russia sees the UK as increasingly isolated because of Brexit and is testing our strength, resolve and diplomatic links:

“Russia is always looking for weak points, and may feel the UK does not feel very strong,” he said in an interview. “The Russian assumption may be that in the process of Brexit, the UK is weaker in terms of its isolation, and due to Brexit the EU will not be very enthusiastic in backing the UK up.

“Fortunately that is not the case, and we will support the UK, but Russia acts by testing for reactions.”

There is also a message that Jeremy Corbyn and his spokesperson may wish to take on board with Linkevičius warning that Putin’s actions represented a threat to liberal democracy. “They test and deny. I am not asking for escalation, but if no clear messages are sent, Russia regards it as an encouragement to do more.”

So not only is Brexit leaving us reliant on an increasingly erratic US President for our trade links but it is also offering succour to our potential enemies by sending out all the wrong signals about the UK's place in the world.

Cat stops play

I have heard of football matches being stopped because of pitch invasions, even the odd streaker, but the latest incident must be unique.

As the BBC report, Turkish side Besiktas have been charged by Uefa after a cat wandered on to the pitch during the Champions League last-16 defeat by Bayern Munich. English referee Michael Oliver stopped play in the second half at Vodafone Park until the cat left the pitch.

The exact charge is "insufficient organisation", while the Turkish club has also been charged with "throwing objects and blocked stairways". The case will be heard by Uefa's disciplinary body on 31 May.

Bayern won 3-1 on the night and 8-1 on aggregate to progress to the quarter-finals and fans of the German club voted the cat as their man of the match.

I am surprised this has not happened before given the large number of cats on the streets in Turkey.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Corbyn splits Labour Party over his response to Salisbury attack

Like many people I found the performance of the Leader of the Opposition in responding to the statement on the Salisbury attacks to be absolutely astonishing.

Putting aside the tradition of MPs from all parties coming together to defend the UK when we are under attack, why was Corbyn using the Commons chamber to question basic facts when he has other avenues available to him.

As leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn is a member of the Privy Council and able to ask for detailed briefings on intelligence matters. If he did not avail himself of that opportunity and instead chose to use a public event to question the government's position, then he deserves all the disapprobation poured on him by all sides.

The Guardian editorial, already endorsed by one member of the Labour front bench sums it up perfectly:

Jeremy Corbyn invited Mrs May to acquiesce to Russia’s requests that a sample be sent to Moscow for verification – on the supposition that the Kremlin might then honestly try to match it with its own stores. He sounded too keen to find another explanation for the use of the nerve agent novichok in the attack.

There are many reasons to be wary whenever governments ask for cross-party support. Oppositions have a duty to challenge prime ministers in the most critical circumstances. Nations should not act in haste over such issues. But Mr Corbyn’s reluctance to share Mrs May’s basic analysis of the Salisbury incident made him look eager to exonerate a hostile power.

As the Independent explains, Jeremy Corbyn's position sparked a furious with Labour MPs who first stood to take an overtly different line in the Commons and then took action outside the Chamber to set themselves apart:

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was among those who differentiated herself from the leader’s position.

She said Russia’s actions must be met with “unequivocal condemnation”, while long-time Corbyn critic John Woodcock said: “This is a day for the House to speak as one for the nation, and (Ms May) will be reassured to hear that a clear majority of Labour MPs, alongside the leaders of every other party, support the firm stance which she is taking.”

Labour former minister Pat McFadden earlier told the Chamber: “Responding with strength and resolve when your country is under threat is an essential component of political leadership.

“There is a Labour tradition that understands that and it has been understood by prime ministers of all parties who have stood at that despatch box.

“That means when chemical weapons are used, we need more than words, but deeds.”

Backbenchers Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie and Stephen Doughty also made comments supportive of Ms May’s stance.

Nobody is suggesting that Corbyn should have accepted the intelligence without question, but at a time when the UK Government is taking action against Russia, I believe that his critics within Labour would have preferred a far more statesmanlike approach in which the Labour leader raised doubts and asked questions in private briefings and only spoke out when he was certain of his own facts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Are calls for England to boycott world cup opportunist nonsense?

I was very disappointed this morning to see otherwise very sensible politicians calling for England to boycott this year's World Cup in retaliation to the near-fatal attack on former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

Amongst those jumping on the bandwagon are former Lib Dem Leader and Blackburn Rovers fan, Tim Farron, and Aberavon Labour MP, Stephen Kinnock.

Of all the possible sanctions that could be imposed against Russia, this one is the most problematic - even if we do put to one side the concern whether England would be there long enough to make a boycott worthwhile.

I recall the attempt by Margaret Thatcher to persuade our athletes to boycott the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. She soon discovered that sports people have minds of their own and that this was not an area she had any control over.

Great Britain went to the games and took advantage of the USA's absence to return with 21 medals. I suspect that any attempt to put pressure on the English FA would lead to a similar snub.

England cannot stand alone in seeking to make a point of boycotting the World Cup. They would need other countries to follow suit and given the lukewarm response from Europe and the USA to Theresa May's outrage over the use of chemical weapons on British soil, joint action is unlikely.

A boycott by England alone would likely just increase Russia's chances of getting to the final stages and would be easily brushed off by Putin. I suspect nobody in Russia would even notice.

There are far more effective sanctions that the UK can take against Russia, some of which may even get support from the EU and the USA. Choosing an easy target like England's presence in the World Cup is just opportunistic nonsense. It is politicians seeking easy headlines. I for one am not convinced that it will be an effective or realistic option.

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