Sunday, October 22, 2017

Let’s talk Brexit with Labour

No matter how hard I scratch my head, I can’t work out what our Official Opposition want when it comes to implementing the UK’s departure from the European Union. I don’t like to be in this position. It’s such a major issue, that the Govt should reach out to the Official Opposition to explore where we can agree. After all, it can be argued that it was Labour voters who delivered the Leave decision on June 23rd 2016.
Anyway, I’ve been reading what Labour Brexit Spokesman, Kier Starmer has been saying. He usually talks sense. Seems there are 6 ‘red lines’ that need to be addressed before Labour can support the EU Withdrawal Bill. Let me consider them briefly to see where agreement could be possible - at least in part. 
1) Probably the key demand is that Parliament should be given a vote (a final say) on the negotiated ‘deal’. I’m personally not  opposed to this in principle, but it’s a problem in practice. Those negotiating on behalf of the EU do not want the UK to leave, so they will have a direct interest in a ‘bad deal’. But my view is that we are reaching the stage when Brexit is unstoppable, which makes possibility of some agreement about a vote on the final deal possible.
2) Labour (well, Starmer at least) want a transition period to be included in any EU Withdrawal Act. I’m not sure how this works. Looking forward to hearing how it works in practice. There is a wide acceptance that a transition/implementation period will be needed to manage the change. Since almost everyone agrees on the need for the transition period, there must be a possibility of some agreement on this ‘red line’.
3) Restrictions on Henry VII powers to ensure they are only included where absolutely necessary, and only for as long as necessary. I rather agree with that, and see scope for an agreement on this issue if approached with positive goodwill by both sides.
4) Guarentee that various rights, such as workers rights, human rights and environmental responsibilities are not watered down. Not easy to know what this ‘red line’ means in practice, but I really don’t think this should be an insurmountable problem. Most of us see freedom for the UK Parliament to have control over such rights as being to strengthen them! 
5) Again it’s conflict between the pragmatic and principle when it comes to managing the return of powers reserved to the EU in devolved responsibilities. At issue is protecting the UK Single Market, even more important than the EU Single Market. The challenge for the UK Govt is to offer sufficient reassurance to devolved parliaments that the purpose is to manage the change rather than a ‘Power grab’. I’m very much in support of being as reassuring as possible. Securing support for a Legislative Consent Order is a more significant issue than anything the Official Opposition will say or do. They would look utterly daft to oppose the Bill if an LCO had been passed. 
6) The final ‘red line’ might be a real problem though. Need to think about this more, because I’m not sure of status of EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. I support acceptance of rulings of the European Convention on Human Rights, but not the European Court of Justice. Taking back control of our own laws is a fundamental principle of Brexit. This may be a ‘red line’ too far.
I will add that it’s possible that debate will lead to me amending some of this. I look on this blog post as a first draft - definitely a work in progress.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Brexit moving forward largely as expected.

I’m writing this blog post as my fortnightly article for next week’s Oswestry and Borders Chronicle. Has to be done for first thing, Monday morning. So it’s style is rather more ‘article’ than ‘blog post’. Here goes.

So much is being written about the process by which the UK is leaving the European Union, that it’s difficult to know what’s actually happening. Or to “see the wood for the trees”. Or to “separate the wheat from the chaff”. Choose your own phrase. But for me, the process of withdrawal is proceeding much as I would have expected it to - in a most unsatisfactory way.
Let us look back. The decision of the British people to leave the EU on 23rd June 2016 came as a surprise to most, including me. In particular, it came as a huge shock to the Prime Minister of the time, David Cameron who resigned the following morning.
After much heart searching, I had voted Leave in the referendum, but I always realised that leaving would lead to years of disruption and uncertainty. I’ve not changed my assessment of what we face. We don’t know, but suspect that little or no preparation work had been done in preparation for a Leave vote. Quite rightly, new Prime Minister, Theresa May has taken the process forward with caution and care - refusing to be rushed. Fortunately a cautious approach is her personal style of government. Mine too.
The main reason why the process of leaving is so difficult for the Prime Minister and David Davis, her Brexit Secretary of State is that the EU is making it as difficult as possible for the UK to carry our it’s instruction from the 17.4 million voters of the UK to leave. Those involved in negotiating on behalf of the EU are behaving like haughty bullies. We saw the same attitude towards Greece over recent years, and we see it towards Catalonia at present. The British people will not be so easily bullied. The response of many of my constituents when we discuss this issue is to be more determined to Leave. The sheer arrogance, haughtiness and intrangigence has given much more impetus to a ‘No Deal’ option.
The UK wants a sensible ‘deal’ which benefits the EU and the UK. I suspect the EU puppet masters are becoming aware that the UK people's attitude is hardening. The UK Govt wants a mutually beneficial deal, but more work is now being done on ‘No Deal’. It should be. We should not continue with the childish game of posturing that is a feature of negotiations so far for much longer. The world outside of  the EU is a big place, where there is a lot of potential for trade deals. It’s reaching time for constructive negotiation or leaving the table. I’ve always been one to turn my back on bullies.

Friday, October 20, 2017

All I can say on Powys Children’s Services Report.

Not often I refuse to do Media interviews, but I did so today when invited to comment on the report from the Children’s and Social Care Inspectorate in Wales about Children’s Services at Powys County Council. When the Report was published recently, I did agree to interviews. On balance I think it was an unwise decision. I said that I was not surprised by the critical content of the Report. I also said that I had known there was a problem for at least two years, but was not in a position to comment on any of the issues raised with me by constituents. Had a team meeting in my office this morning, and decided ‘No Interviews’. Also decided to write this blog making public all that I consider appropriate. Crucial that constituents have confidence that what they say to me remains confidential.
Here’s all I’m prepared to say. I was first approached by a constituent over three years ago (not two). Other contacts followed. Despite Children’s Services being a devolved issue, with responsibility vested in the County Council, I decided my case worker should follow up in response. At that stage I had no idea that it would snowball. Over the next 18 months, I wrote 15 letters to a variety of Council officers and councillors. During late 2016, I became increasingly concerned and escalated my concern by arranging a more formal meeting in my office with the Cabinet Member responsible for Children’s Services, outlining some details on a confidential basis. I and my case worker were becoming seriously concerned. The police had been involved, as had an English authority, which we contacted. My impression was that my intervention and the Cabinet Member’s Positive response had “shaken things up”. But after some time, it became clear that the issues had not been resolved. My office remains in contact and more letters have followed, and I continue to have serious concerns about delays. Bearing all this in mind, I don’t think it unreasonable to say that I am not surprised by the content of the CSSIW Report.
While I am not prepared to say any more about the cases I’m involved with, my team have agreed that we would be prepared to allow the head of any inquiry to have sight of my case worker’s file, which has a comprehensive record of every meeting and written contact with the Council. I would also be prepared to share sight of the case notes with the new Chair of Powys County Council, who has handled the response to the Report very well. For the first time in years, I have confidence that the Council’s Leader and Cabinet are taking the concerns that I (and perhaps others) have had for a long time.
And that’s about it. That’s all I’m making public. I don’t know what instigated the CSSIW investigation. It may that my agitation may have had some influence. I would be pleased if it had. I just hope, for the sake of children at risk, that steps are put in place to carry out Children’s Services properly.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Failure in Powys Children’s Services.

About two years ago a constituent called my office, concerned about the safety of a child, and dissatisfaction with the response of Powys Council’s Children’s Servics Department. I cannot communicate any information about the case. It’s a fundamental principle that any constituent (or non constituent) can be assured of total confidentiality when they speak to me. That’s one reason why I often ignore questions of Facebook. At the time, I asked one of my caseworkers to take a close look at the case. I was disturbed by what I was told, and raised the issue with Powys County Council, at both an officer and political level.
The Council response was very disappointing. Actually it was worse than that. I thought there was an almost total lack of recognition of the seriousness of the case. I try never to let my work get to me. I see so much awfulness in the world. Every MP does. I’d never sleep. But that single case caused me real worry and sleeplessness. I felt the safety of a very young child was at serious risk. I made contact with another English Council which had an involvement. And escalated my contact with the Council to the highest level I reasonably could. I was not prepared to make anything public, and I’m still not naming names - in public anyway. The confidentiality factor is too important to my work. But I needed to be certain I had done what I could, explaining to the Council that I could not let this matter be brushed under the carpet. I knew about it, was not prepared to be complicit, and was not prepared to let it go.
I do not know whether my involvement has had an impact on the report into the failings of Powys Council’s Children’s Services Department. I would be very pleased if it had. I had hoped for a briefing on the report last Friday, before it was published. But it was cancelled. Bearing in mind all the above, I was not one bit surprised by the Report’s findings. As always, I suspect my experience is only the merest tip of what has been happening. The truth will out.
We have seen only the first chapter of this scandal. And scandal it is. We’re told the police are now involved due to falsification of documents. I would be surprised if a whole lot more does not emerge. I will have to share my experiences with anyone appointed to look in detail at what has happened. But there is one spark of optimism within this dark place. I have been encouraged by the response of the new Council Leader, Rosemarie Harris. For the first time in two years I have some confidence that the Council acknowledges the horrific scale of what has happened. That is an important first step on the road to putting things right. I’m not interested in a witch hunt, even though there may be some holding to account. I just want a proper service put in place. It’s going to take a long time, and need a lot of work before we can feel confident that Powys County Council is able to deliver acceptable Children’s Services for the county of Powys.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Constituency Boundaries and Rural Democracy.

Don’t suppose I’m in Govt’s ‘good books’ today, after my response to the latest proposals to review constituency boundaries. My view is only on what is proposed for Wales. BBC Wales are reporting my view that I consider the proposals for Wales to be “crackers”and damaging to democracy in Rural Wales in particular. While today’s revised proposals are the handiwork of the Boundary Commission, I do not criticise the commissioners. They have no choice but recommend within the constraints of Govt legislation and the Welsh National boundary.  which afford little room for rational consideration or freedom to take history, culture and geography into account.
Now I do accept that there is a case for some equalisation of constituency sizes. In fact, a review is long overdue. I just don’t think it’s sensible or rational to review on the basis of 600 constituencies rather that the current 650.  Especially at a time when numbers in the House of Lords continue to rise into the 800s! Also, I concede that I cannot reasonably argue that the number of Welsh MPs should remain at 40 when the same constituency size as currently exists in England would result in 33 Welsh MPs. There should be two changes to the legislation. Firstly, the reduction should be from 40 to 33 (not 29) to reflect average size of constituencies across the UK. And the ‘tolerance’ between number of electors per constituency should be more than 5%. (8% perhaps). If we’re asking Boundary Commissioners to agree new boundaries, let’s give them the power to make recommendations as sensible and sensitive as possible.
Dare say some might suggest I’m being difficult or unreasonable. Well, let’s look at things from where I’m standing - which is in the ancient constituency of Montgomeryshire. Montgomeryshire has existed as a constitutional entity for around 500 yrs. I’ve been involved in public life for over 40 yrs, and have always represented Montgomeryshire (Council, Welsh Assembly and Parliament). Have fought elections as “The Montgomeryshire Man”. I still use Montgomeryshire as my address, despite it officially being Powys. The current proposals consign historic Montgomeryshire to the dustbin of history, carving it up into three to make up the numbers in surrounding constituencies. What am I supposed to think.
Of course Bethan asked me if I intended to vote against the proposals when they come forward at the end of 2018. I declined to answer. I want to argue my corner over this with Government. If I say now that I’m voting against, I lose all influence on the debate. It’s what happens. Ok, it would win some favourable publicity, ensuring I make headlines rather than maybe make a difference. But what I have said is that if these proposals are adopted, I will not stand for Parliament again. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Follow up on Brexit radio chat this morning.

It’s difficult to know what to expect when entering into the Lion’s Den that is the Sunday Supplement studio with Vaughan Roderick. Especially when the subject under debate is Brexit. I realised The inevitability of being asked which way I’d vote if the EU Referendum was held again. But there are so many other strands blowing in the winds of uncertainty.

The two strands that Nia Griffiths, Labour Shadow Defence Minister and I talked with Vaughan about   this morning were the transition/implementation period after March 2019 and our approach during it to the leaving of the Single Market and the Customs Union. We will be formally leaving all of them in March 19. There are some who refer to this as “The hardest of Brexits”, which I do think is utter nonsense. My hope is that the UK will agree that our relationship with the EU during the transition/implementation period will match as closely as possible current arrangements - where this benefits both sides. Must admit I’m not personally that bothered about the two year limit, as long as it’s not just a tactical delaying tactic.

Vaughan quite rightly brought up impact on Welsh sheep farming. We knew before Referendum day that the tariff on lamb could theoretically be a massive 40% if we have no agreed deal and have to fall back on WTO rules. That is a ‘worst case scenario’ and of course it inevitably means some uncertainty. It would also require some highly stupid and perverse decision (or non decision) making. I’m a lot more optimistic. But I do accept the possibility of perverse stupidity, so am keen to promote diversification. A good long term strategy whatever happens. It’s already happening.

Which brings us to what is a sensible approach to the ‘No Deal’ question. And here I do think the opposition position is bizarre. I watched Labour’s main spokesman on this issue, Kier Starmer on the Sunday Politics today. Sounded like a man who has never done any sort of deal in his life. Only a fool enters a negotiation, informing everyone that whatever deal is reached, it will be/must be accepted. Like me in a former life, walking into the John Deere sale room, waving my chequebook around and informing the salesman I’m buying no matter what the price. It’s an attitude quarenteed to deliver a very bad deal. We all want a good deal for the UK and a good deal for the EU. Thank goodness Mr Starmer isn’t sitting at the negotiating table.

Anyway, that was about it. I was expecting this morning to be about how we manage powers reserved to the EU in devolved subject areas, and the wide use of Henry VIII powers. Now that would have been much more difficult for me to cope with!!

Friday, October 13, 2017

More chat about Brexit.

It may not be a wise decision but I’ve agreed to appear on Sunday Supplement this week to discuss Brexit. In current climate, my ambition will be not to commit a ‘gaffe’. And that will not be easy because even the slightest grammatical error is treated as a ‘gaffe’ when the subject of Brexit is under discussion. And Vaughan Roderick is a crafty interviewer.
First question is bound to be ‘Which way would you vote if the referendum were to be re-run today.? The obvious answer should be the one the Prime Minister gave. It’s not going to be re-run and we are leaving the EU in March 2019, so don’t ask such a pointless hypothetical question. But when I’ve been asked over recent days, I’ve replied “I’d vote same as June 2016”. I’d vote Leave, with the same degree of uncertainty as I did last time. I find the question no easier to answer today, even though the blood curdling nonsense churned out by the Treasury before the EU referendum has been shown up as the ludicrous scare stories without foundation that we thought it was. But reality is we still face uncertainty, and will continue to do so for a good while yet.
I might be asked if I support a ‘Hard Brexit’ or a ‘Soft Brexit’. I really do not know what these terms mean. They are bandied about by people as if they are clearly defined terms. They are not. They are just some sort of code, which I don’t fully grasp.  I am in favour of the UK leaving the EU, including the Single Market and the Customs Union. Anything else is not Brexit. Call that response what you will. I see leaving the EU simply as ‘Brexit’.
And then we have the issue of whether the UK Government should prepare for ‘no deal’. Of course we should. I’ve never gone into any negotiation without retaining the option of ‘no deal’. And I fully expect the EU to be preparing for ‘no deal’ as well.  Not having that option on or near the negotiating table almost guarantees a bad deal. Most people want a good deal for the UK, and a good deal for the EU. But it’s seemed to me all along that the conditions imposed on the negotiations by the EU at the start almost guarantee ‘no deal’. That is a dreadful pity - both damaging and unwise. But if that’s the way it is, so be it. And I’m not sure we should waste much more time dancing to an unacceptable Juncker/Barnier tune on this. The one individual whose behaviour promotes ‘no deal’ above all others is Juncker. I hope there are no gaffes in that!