A rosy celebration in a London square of good relations between Bulgaria and Britain

Bulgarian 1st Rose jpg

The first  perfumed Damascene rose donated by the Bulgarians to London flowers in Golden Square

While London is shortly to have a nationalistic pro Brexit  demonstration following the “Free Tommy Robinson ”  violent right wing extremist march last weekend, a square in the heart of Soho  was a venue to  celebrate the  opposite to those stirring up hate and prejudice  – a celebration of how the Bulgarians contribute to London life.

Bulgaria Dancers Party

Bulgarian dancers

The Bulgarians took over Golden Square for an afternoon of dancing, singing and speeches from both the London mayor’s office and Tory councillors representing the area in Westminster plus an impromptu speech from me. My grandson Leon thought the dancing was similar in some ways to Irish dancing.

 

Bulgaria Group Food

A spread of Bulgarian food

There was also a a selection of Bulgarian food – which is influenced by both Turkish and Greek cuisine – and  was offered free to any members of the public who happened to be enjoying the sunshine in the square at the time.

Bulgaria Junior Dancer PartyAnd schoolchildren also performed dances

The contrast between the manufactured  fear of the other in the media  and the attitudes of the people there could not be stronger. And I suspect this is reflected in many other ethnic minority communities. Pictures were supplied by Boyko Boev.

Bulgaria Group Foto Party

The Bulgarians and guests at the celebration

Postponed by Brexit: Vital investigations into the effectiveness of Britain’s border controls

s300_David-holt

David Bolt, chief inspector of borders and immigration Pic Credit: gov.uk

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

While the mantra of every enthusiastic Brexiteer has been ” we are taking back control” of our borders the irony is quietly over Easter the Whitehall body responsible  for checking it postponed vital investigations to ensure it happens.

David Bolt, the independent chief inspector of Borders and Immigration, announced changes to the planned schedule of investigations – entirely because of the failure of ministers to sort out the Brexit negotiations.

The chief inspector’s job is to make sure that the UK has an efficient and fair system of immigration and customs controls – precisely because once we are out of the EU it will become even more important that they work properly. It also identifies risks of smuggling and illegal immigration.

However ministerial failure to sort this out – notably by Theresa May and David Davis the Brexit Secretary, now means that planned inspections cannot take place this year and have been postponed for at least 12 months if not longer.

The biggest casualty has been a big  350 day long investigation and inspection of West Coast ports – notably  Swansea, Fishguard, Holyhead,Liverpool and Stranraer among others – due to begin now and postponed until next year.

The reason is starkly included in the revised timetable. ” Deferred from 2018-19; timing subject to agreement on the CTA arrangements after the UK exits the EU.

These sparse words basically mean ” Can no do because Britain and the EU cannot agree on the future of the Irish border and how the common travel area will work and it will be a waste of time to do it now because it could all change”.

It also means that we may not know whether the new arrangements are working until well after we have left the EU.

Nor is it the only investigation deferred. A similar investigation this year was going to look at customs control over freight operation scheduled for 2019-20. The timetable now says : Inspection scope and timing subject to agreement on the handling of freight after the UK’s exit from the EU.

Again failure to decide exactly whether there will be tariffs on goods means could well be delayed and we won’t know how this is working either.

Meanwhile this year an inspection into the ” points” system for immigration has had to be significantly widened to include rules for  Inspection of “Brexit preparedness”, focusing on resourcing and processes for the registration and settlement of
EU nationals.

There also has been a knock on effect on other investigations including  delays to a further in country investigation into modern slavery and a one year delay in investigating NHS charging because of insufficient resources. They could also be a delay to an investigation into illegal working in the UK.

David Bolt adds: “I have therefore created space within the Plan for various ‘Brexit’-related pieces of work, the precise shape and timing of which are not yet fixed. I will announce specific inspections in the normal way via the website as soon as I am able.”

The organisation is one of the few not to suffer Whitehall austerity cuts but as people leave it is finding it difficult to recruit new people which could be a new worry.

His statement ends with a plea for people to join the service. “If you believe that you have the necessary qualities and are interested in joining the inspectorate, please keep an eye on the website, where any vacancies will be advertised.”

This seems yet another example of  how the failure to sort out an early timetable for Brexit is leaving a trail of unfinished business across Whitehall – and a fresh danger of chaos at our borders after we have left.

 

 

 

 

 

Vote Leave and Cambridge Analytica: A stench enveloping Downing Street and the Cabinet’s hard Brexiteers

250px-Stephen_Parkinson

Stephen Parkinson, Now political secretary to Theresa May, previously national organiser Vote Leave Pic credit: Powerhouse

 

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

The growing and completely unpredictable coverage following the exposure of Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm, for data harvesting is  fast turning into a scandal that  will seriously damage the reputation of the government or eventually could even bring it down.

From past experience of Westminster and Whitehall scandals once the genie is out of the bottle there is precious little those in power can do to put the stopper back. And from this weekend due to a crass and vile statement from Stephen Parkinson, Theresa May’s political secretary, about  the private life of the latest whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, it has drawn Downing Street into the fray.

For the ordinary voter the row over data analytics  and how it may have been misused may sound a trifle arcane – since it goes back to two past events – the election of Donald Trump and the controversial Brexit vote. Those in power will be tempted to say – nothing to see here, all done and dusted, let’s move on.

The problem is that they can’t. The huge scale of data harvesting  by Cambridge Analytica via  Facebook of 50 million US citizens plus the potential Russian involvement is now the subject of a huge investigation by  special counsel Robert Mueller and that will not go away. Already Facebook has taken a financial hit  for not protecting our data.

And in England, the Electoral Commission is now investigating the Brexit donations and the  Cambridge Analytica  and Vote Leave’s links to other companies, including the Canadian firm,AggregateIQ (AIQ). The Information Commissioner’s Office is now investigating Cambridge Analytica for potential data breaches for political purposes. Neither investigation is likely to stop.

I won’t need to go over the details of the story which now involves two whistleblowers and has led to the suspension of  the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix.

You can find it in full in The Observer by the dogged and determined Carole  Cadwalladr  here. Or you can see the excellent Channel Four documentary here.

What I will do is look at the ramifications which are now knocking on the door of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, both in the Cabinet. Central to this is why £625,000 was given to the student run  Vote BeLeave campaign to spend on a Vote Leave analytical company, when Vote Leave was not supposed to be connected to Vote BeLeave – and could breach strict  campaign spending guidelines. There are also the very serious allegations – of the mass removal of emails and links between Vote BeLeave and the two highly seasoned campaigners, Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers alliance fame  and chief executive of Vote Leave, and the aggressive  ex special adviser Dominic Cummings, who jointly ran Vote Leave. He is denying this happened but it appears the whistleblower has sent information to the Electoral commission contradicting that.

Did Gove and Johnson know? and why is Johnson just saying it is ludicrous to suggest this happened – ” sound bites ” don’t make the issue go away.

And finally there is the behaviour of Theresa May’s political secretary. Stephen Parkinson, in deciding the world should know about his previous love life with the whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni.  Shahmir did not wish to go public to the whole world that he was gay. Mr Parkinson is not some political celeb – his role, as I am sure he will be reminded pretty quickly by the Cabinet Office, is to stay in the background not to become part of a public love story. Most people won’t care a damn who he sleeps with – so the only real reason can be a botched attempt to discredit and embarrass the whistleblower.

Parkinson also has previous form. According to Spinwatch’s Lobbying Portal he is an experienced campaigner, being part of the ” No to AV ” campaign to stop the alternative vote in 2011. He also was involved in the scandal over whether the Tories had broken election law in 2015 by overspending. They were mainly cleared of this  but there is a legal case pending  in May against Craig Mackinley, Tory MP for South Thanet, his agent and a Tory campaigner, for making false election returns. Parkinson has worked for Theresa May since 2012 – apart from his work on the Vote Leave campaign.

The real problem for the government is that the next revelations could come from anywhere – it could come from the US  investigations or it could come from the UK if more whistleblowers come forward. They are not in control. So far the reaction has been pure bluster.

I can see in the end the most serious issue will be the use of people’s data by political organisations and breach of privacy – which will  even override  the bitter aftermath of Brexit and the US election result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does the demise of UKIP offer a lifeline to embattled Tories?

ukip-tory

Will the Tories replace UKIP? Pic credit: Matt Dent; A mad man with a blog

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

The performance of UKIP  in the polls has  been pretty disastrous for some time now. But if the party dies this weekend which other party is going to benefit from its demise.

After losing their only MP at the general election the party performed very badly at local level and is continuing to do so. And ironically Britain’s departure from the European Union will destroy its biggest base which is in Brussels. So by 2019 when we leave it is possible that UKIP will have completely disappeared from the political scene. It is very much a case  of don’t get what you wish for.

But the destruction of UKIP  at the moment appears to be more of a problem for Labour than the Tories. It is a considerable dilemma for Jeremy Corbyn on how he handles Brexit and suggests he, as well as Theresa May, is caught between a rock and a hard place over this issue.

Younger Labour Party voters – particularly in London and the South – are very strongly pro Remain – welcoming the diverse nature of the UK and enjoying the reality of visa free travel across most of Europe.

But Labour voters outside this group – in the North, Midlands, East Anglia and parts of Kent- are pro Brexit. And furthermore the former UKIP voters are obviously keen for Britain to leave.

So for Labour to get back these working class voters it has to be seen to be  both supporting Brexit and sympathising with Remain  at the same time. It also means the party – which has had success particularly at the last election – has highlighted domestic issues like the NHS, education, transport, housing and student loans rather than Brexit.

Labour’s dilemma is shown up in a scattering of local council by-elections across the country this month. Of course one should not put too much score on local election results – because of low polls and because simply that they are local.

But one trend has emerged where UKIP had a previous strong showing.in local areas and either doesn’t stand or puts up a candidate who is trashed by the electorate.

What appears to be happening  is that both Labour and the Tories are gaining votes – but the Tories are getting the lion’s share. This means that either Labour cannot win the seat or as in Bolton last night – they lose a seat to the Tories.

The results in Thanet in Kent –  a former UKIP stronghold where they got control of the council – is a case in point. It has seen the Tory and Labour vote go up – but has allowed the Tories to retain their seats with a bigger majority. Roughly two in three former UKIP voters seem to have switched to the Tories compared with one in three supporting Labour.

In Bolton where on a  nearly 30 per cent poll – the Tories took a seat off Labour – the result again showed  both the Tories and Labour gaining votes – but the Tory share of the vote went up 16.7 per cent to take a seat in a safe Labour Parliamentary constituency. Again UKIP had polled very well in the ward in the past.

Similarly in Newport Pagnell, a council seat on Milton Keynes council  where UKIP had got a big share of the vote last time – the Tory share jumped over 15 per cent – while Labour jumped just under 12 per cent. UKIP got  nearly a quarter of the votes last time but didn’t stand.

These actual votes may explain the closeness in the polls between Labour and the Tories – the Tory vote is simply being buoyed up by former Kippers. It may also explain why William Hague, the former Tory leader, would like to see UKIP wound up as the best chance for the party to stay in power.

It is also quite clever  of Boris Johnson to raise the issue that the NHS would get even more money after we leave the EU – it is aimed at those people keeping faith with Brexit believing the country will enter a Shangri La once we are out.

I personally don’t believe a word of it – but to my mind it does suggest to me that Labour should not take the next election for granted. They have to continue to work on these voters by offering a much fairer society. But it also leaves them with a very delicate balancing act over Brexit.

 

 

 

Time for MPs to take back control of Parliament

john bercow

John Bercow, the Speaker Image credit: bbc

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

There has been much debate about populist slogans from Brexiteers about Britain needing to take back control of the country from so called Brussels bureaucrats when we leave the European Union in 2019.

The very same MPs are remarkably silent about a decision taken seven years ago by the UK Parliament to set up an independent committee to  take  back control of how the government can present its legislation to Parliament.

Put it very simply we are supposed to live in a Parliamentary democracy but in fact MPs allow the government to monopolise and control Parliament  through the Whips system without so much as a whisper of discontent.

The fact that nothing has been done was highlighted ( though you won’t have read in mainstream media) by John Bercow, the Speaker, in an address given in Parliament to the Hansard Society this week. You can read the full speech here.

In 2010 a committee chaired by Tony Wright, a Labour Mp who did a very good job scrutinising Whitehall on the public administration committee, proposed a series of reforms to  allow MPs to take back control of the running of Parliament from the government. One reform giving backbenchers a greater role in debates got through. Another reform giving Mps much more control over government business was also approved – but guess what the government did nothing about it.

As John Bercow said in this extract from his speech:

” It is missing in action, confined to something akin to parliamentary purgatory. Nailed to its perch.”

He goes on in this longer extract:

” As a matter of basic democratic principle this will not do. The House decided to back the concept of a House Business Committee along the lines of the Wright Committee recommendations. One of three courses of action should follow. The House should have its decision implemented. Alternatively, it should be consulted on some other design for a House Business Committee. Or the House should determine in a vote that it has changed its mind on the issue. It should not be side lined in this fashion. It is quite wrong for there to be a vacuum. This is as inappropriate as, for example, legislating to hold a referendum on a major question of the day and then simply ignoring the outcome. The longer that this state of affairs persists the more profoundly unsatisfactory I believe it to be.

“The Wright formula, to remind enthusiasts in the room for such detail, was very balanced. It did not seek to defenestrate the Whips Offices. It recognised that the Government of the day had a right to have its business tabled. Elections would be rendered impotent affairs if this were not the case. Ministers are, therefore, in my view entitled to a majority but not a monopoly on a House Business Committee. The legitimate issue for the House as a whole is the balance of allocation of time across the various measures that constitute a legislative programme. The Wright Committee also underlined the importance of the Official Opposition – and other opposition parties – being given more say on scheduling their business, and envisaged, I am reliably informed, the House Business Committee as the forum for such discussions. I dare venture that some of the recent tensions over scheduling Opposition Days or more accurately not scheduling Opposition days, might have been avoided if there had been a House Business Committee to hand.

“Any such Committee should be chaired by an independent figure. Wright suggested the Senior Deputy Speaker. It should have a backbench component as well as representation from the smaller parties. It would also be desirable to link the chamber to the select committees perhaps via the presence of the Chair of the Liaison Committee. Finally, if not instantly but over time, it should include the direct election of the backbench members in the spirit of the various other reforms which Wright offered to the House more than eight years ago and which the House chose to adopt.”

Now you might say -particularly after this long extract –  why should I be bothered about this arcane Parliamentary stuff? You should for two reasons.

First though she won the most votes Theresa May did not win enough Parliamentary seats to have a majority in Parliament but is ruling – because of the deal with the Democratic Unionist Party – as though she does using every statutory wheeze to try and stay in power for five years.

This measure will put Parliament as a whole in control as it will give greater bargaining power to Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, the Scots Nats and the solitary Green MP – to influence how the government timetables its legislation and how Opposition Mps and backbenchers can get issues debated.

Second whatever your views on Brexit the government is planning to try and by-pass Parliament by using the Brexit bill to take power to change all sorts of laws and regulations by   ministerial diktat – the ” so called Henry VIII clauses ” – named  after the monarch who dissolved Britain’s monasteries – with little chance of debate.

These could be used to  change rights for the disabled, curb worker’s rights to holidays , drop environment protections , cut benefit entitlement and amend health and safety protection, – like for example reducing safeguards on working with asbestos ( this has actually been suggested by one Tory).

This will affect you in your daily life and Parliament needs to defend itself by making sure that ministers can’t  avoid being challenged by manipulating the Parliamentary timetable.

So what we need are some bolshie backbenchers of all parties to put up a motion to set up this committee. From what was said  week they would get a fair wind from the Speaker.

 

 

 

 

 

My billet-doux from Theresa: Push Brexit from the comfort of your own home and register your vote plan at Tory Central Office

Theresa May

May’s billet doux campaign to her supporters Pic credit:BBC

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE>COM

One of the more amusing things about this election is that Conservative Central Office appear to have registered me as a Tory supporter, How this has happened I do not know but as a result nearly every day I receive a Dear David  billet-doux from Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and Patrick McLoughlin telling me what line to take against Jeremy Corbyn.

They were especially active when Theresa May  and Jeremy  Corbyn were facing separate Paxman interviews – with five lines to take – emphasising Corbyn’s support for the IRA .

But in the last week it is clear that the Tories have gone back to basics and  even after the Manchester terrorist attack – are now trying to get a big majority on Theresa May’s stance over Brexit.

As this letter shows:

Dear David,

I’m excited about the future.

If we make a success of Brexit, there are great opportunities ahead.

My plan for Brexit will return control to Britain – and help us shape a brighter, fairer future for our country.

But David, I need every Conservative supporter to get behind my plan to make Brexit work.

So please join our team speaking to voters around the country by signing up to make calls today.

As we approach the final week of this campaign, it’s crucial that everybody remembers this fact: Britain is about to enter into the most important negotiations of my lifetime.

Brexit negotiations are set to begin just eleven days after polling day. And the European Union is already adopting an aggressive negotiating position.

That’s why Britain needs a strong government and a strong Prime Minister capable of standing up to Brussels.

Your support is more important now than ever. Because every vote for me in this election will strengthen my hand in the negotiations that are about to start.

So, David, help me make my case to the country – and help me make a success of Brexit – by signing up to make calls today.

 

Thank you for your support

Theresa May
Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party

If you click on the link you will find three choices – join a phone bank, go to Conservative Central Office ( you get a special rousing address from Boris if you do) or make the calls under Tory guidance from your own home. Fascinating to know how many people have received calls in the last few days – and whether this appeal has been launched because the Tories have not had enough support from members to do the work despite overflowing with cash donations.

On polling day Theresa has asked me to have a plan on how I am going to vote – suggesting I might go with the family, friends and neighbours to stop Jeremy Corbyn Diane Abbott and  John McDonnell going into government.

As she says here:

Dear David,

Today I’m asking you to do one crucial thing: make a plan to vote.

If the Conservatives lose just 6 seats next Thursday, we will lose our majority: and Jeremy Corbyn will be in charge of Brexit, Diane Abbott our national security and John McDonnell our economy.

There is so much at stake David – and I need your support.

Please make a plan to vote on our website today, so you know what time you’ll be voting next Thursday, and who you’ll be going to the polling station with.

And then forward this email on to every Conservative supporter you know, so they can make a plan to vote too.

Thank you for your support,

Rt Hon. Theresa May MP

Theresa May
Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party

 

What this does show is that even on polling day – who goes out to vote will be absolutely crucial to the result – and the Tories are planning to monitor their supporters to make sure they have voted. Interesting times.

The Treasury: Destroying Britain’s world leadership in green technology

cop 21 carbon capture

Carbon capture from Cop21

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

There has been much said that Britain doesn’t capitalise on its own innovation – and leaves other countries to do so. Much of the blame is put on companies not wanting to invest – but it is often acknowledged that the state has a role to pump prime innovation.

In green technology Britain is seen to have surrendered the lead it once had on wind farms – with nearly all the technology now being imported.

What has not been really reported is the role of the Treasury in encouraging or discouraging green technology. Until now.

A report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee in the dying days of Parliament shows just how baleful the Treasury has been in destroying Britain’s world prospects coupled with writing off taxpayers money. And the main culprit in the last six years must be George Osborne and to a lesser extent, former Liberal democrat energy secretary, Chris Huhne- despite the Liberal  Democrats green image.

Officially the report was on the abandonment of carbon capture technology. –

The Commons  criticised the handling of decisions by the last coalition and Conservative governments to waste some £168m by cancelling competitions to develop new carbon capture technology before its potential could be realised.

The Mps concluded: “ The UK has now missed opportunities to be at the forefront of a growing global industry” but say this is part of the pattern where the Treasury halts projects for short term financial gain over the last decade.

“The UK may now have lost any competitive advantage to export CCS technology to countries that are seeking options to reduce their own carbon dioxide emissions, which could have created engineering and R&D jobs in this country. This is reminiscent of government decisions in the 1980s not to develop renewables, meaning the UK lost its position as the world leader in emerging technologies such as wind power.

“Neither the Department nor the Treasury evaluated the potential benefits for the UK’s economy of having a globally competitive CCS sector prior to the competition being cancelled.”

What is more damning is how MPs go on to provide a shopping list of failure to support green technology.

“These included cutting feed-in tariffs for solar and onshore wind; scrapping the zero-carbon homes regulation; withdrawing the grandfathering support policy for biomass projects; privatising the Green Investment Bank; and cutting subsidies for low-emission vehicles.”

The original decision to halt the first attempt at carbon capture technology was made by Chris Huhne when he cancelled an experiment at Longannet power station in Scotland. Then George Osborne halted for short term savings a development at Drax coal fired power station in 2015.

Mean while in the rest of the world 20 projects are going ahead. As Mps conclude:

“Halting CCS’s deployment means that the UK will have to pay billions of pounds more to meet its decarbonisation targets, has missed opportunities to be at the forefront of a growing global industry, and has damaged investors’ confidence in working with the government on CCS in the future.”

Given we are supposed to be proudly standing alone -post Brexit – and need to develop new technologies here, this is doubly damaging. But then it seems politicians are more interested in rhetoric than action.

I have written a piece in Tribune on this.