Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Brexit Delivery Group (inspired by Simon Hart MP)

I voted Leave in the EU Referendum on June 23rd 2016, when a majority of those who voted agreed with me. I strongly believe that we must respect that referendum decision. I also accept that the 48% who supported Remain must be given a voice. If we are to heal the deep divisions on this issue in British society, we should do everything possible to deliver agreement on how we leave the EU, benefitting both the UK and the EU as far as we possibly can. And I do think it’s possible. But I am increasingly concerned that due to internal wrangling, leadership ambitions and wilful misrepresentation of the realities of parliamentary arithmetic, the whole Brexit project is threatened. The pursuit by some MPs of what is loosely described as a ‘Hard Brexit’ is making an achievable, acceptable Brexit near unachievable.

Voters in the EU referendum opted for Leave for a range of reasons and with different levels of enthusiasm. Some saw it as a ‘great release’ from external control, a massive financial saving, the freedom to control immigration, or the ability to trade with the world. Other Leave voters were unsure, hoping and believing that, on balance, they were doing the right thing. I was one of those. Every one of the 17.4 million had their own personal reasons to vote Leave.

At the same time we have the 48%, some of whom are committed to overturning the result of the referendum because they see it as damaging the economy and impacting negatively on jobs. But there are many others who accept that we are leaving. So there are pressures from both wings of the Brexit debate. Both sides battle to be heard on the airwaves and to be read in our newspapers. And through the cacophony, Theresa May continues to negotiate a deal with the European Union. She has a majority of just 11, assuming the DUP all stay onside. Changing the Brexit secretary, the foreign secretary or even the Prime Minister does not change that simple fact. The majority will still be 11.

The challenges would be still there, perhaps even more difficult as new personalities will have to renegotiate a position internally as a party, externally with the country, and in Brussels with the European Commission - and will have less than six weeks to do it

Some argue for “no deal” - a ‘false god’ in my opinion. Yes we must prepare for ‘no deal” but I judge this outcome would be a massive failure by both the EU and UK negotiating teams. And would Parliament vote for ‘no deal’ anyway. Is it really likely that Parliament  (exercising its sovereignty in a very Brexit-like manner) will permit that? Where do we go then? How about a general election? Turkeys and Christmas come to mind. We might as well have a second referendum as that is what it would become. The Conservatives would be punished for failure and Labour probably elected. What price Brexit then dear hard Brexiteers? 

The EU negotiators are watching these shenanigans. Quite a bit of head shaking going on. We cannot simply issue orders to the commission and expect them to be obeyed any more than we can to our own party. We need to ‘get real’. I believe we should do what we promised, leaving the EU next March. We should do what we have to do to get this project “over the line”. It certainly won’t be all I wanted. There will be years more ‘negotiation’ during a ‘transition period’. That’s what every business has to do every day of its existence. It’s what our relationship with the EU has been for more than 40 years, including fundamental changes such as expansion, Maastricht, the Euro and the Lisbon Treaty.

I am not given to joining ‘groups’ at Westminster, but I have joined the Brexit Delivery Group (BDG) established by Simon Hart  MP, with whom I share an office. This post is based on an article he wrote for the Times. The BRG includes MPs who voted Leave and who voted Remain. Numbers are already at nearly 60. That’s roughly 30 per cent of Conservative MPs and growing. There are no red lines other than a determination not to trigger another referendum or bring about a general election. There is no view on leadership contenders but a resolute belief in seeking a negotiated settlement and to provide the government with the space to achieve that.

We need an agreement that stands the best chance of getting through parliament. We cannot have the perfect deal for anyone. There are too many ideas of what a ‘perfect deal’ is. In politics “perfection” rarely exists. The lyrics of ‘The Perfect Deal’ is that of a siren calling  us on to the rocks.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Amazon’s Tax Bill

Coverage of politics at Westminster is obsessing about every minor detail of the Brexit discussions, while very little attention is being paid to the Budget, only a few weeks away. What taxation changes do we want to see from the Chancellor of the Exchequer? The challenge he faces will not be easy. Actually, the overall financial position of the Exchequer is rather better than we might have expected a year or two ago (despite the ubiquitous and ridiculous ‘fear’ predictions emanating from the Treasury before the EU Referendum in 2016). But the recently announced massive annual £20 billion increase in NHS investment will have to be paid for. There is also a real need to increase investment in social care and defence. 

So where is this extra money to come from? Over recent weeks I’ve received hundreds of emails calling for an ‘Amazon Tax’, based on the belief that this would make a significant difference. It will not. Because Amazon is such a massive worldwide business, with a market capitalisation of over £1 trillion, there’s a widespread assumption that paying just £4.6 million in Corporation Tax is in some way ‘cheating the system’. It so happens that I too hope that the Chancellor will find a way of extracting more tax out of the several worldwide companies who do not have a High Street presence, but, as always, these internet based campaigns are not what they seem.

Firstly, it’s not Amazon (the worldwide monolith) which is based in the UK - it’s a subsidiary (Amazon UK Services) and it’s run from about a dozen giant warehouses. Its profits in the UK are actually well below £100 million, a lot of money but not a base to make any significant boost to Treasury income. Even so, its tax bill still seems lower than it should be. But it’s important to understand why. In 2000 the then Labour Government introduced a scheme to encourage companies wanting to create schemes giving shares to employees. Any company which did this could set the cost against its Corporation Tax liabilities. I approved of this scheme. I still do. Do we really want to stop this scheme. Personally, I think it a great idea to give employees a real stake in the success of the business they work for.
Amazon (and several others) are also said to have an unfair advantage over other more traditional retailers by paying lower business rates. Now it’s true that Amazon has developed a business model which is not based on the High Street, but is located in properties where business rates are more affordable, enabling its prices to be more competitive. It is a very strange campaign, supposedly acting in the interests of the people of the UK, which calls for the cost of what we buy to be forced higher - deliberately hitting consumers pockets. 

And finally, I cannot let this issue pass without a comment on the bizarre position adopted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England, publicly criticising Amazon for its business model - only for us to discover that the Church itself has several millions of pounds invested in Amazon. And then criticising the employment practices of Amazon, which are replicated by the Church itself. This is as blatant an example of hypocrisy as you’ll ever see! Yes, I hope the Chancellor can find a way to raise more tax from the Amazon’s of our world. But let’s not pretend it’s straightforward or would make any significant difference.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Saving Montgomeryshire.

This week, the 4 Boundary Commissions of the UK published their final proposals for the new UK map of Parliamentary constituencies. Montgomeryshire, as we know it disappears. My view is that the proposals are a total dog’s breakfast. And it’s not the fault of the Boundary Commissions. The blame lies squarely on the politicians who stitched up the commissioners so tightly that they had no real choice but deliver the dog’s breakfast.

Let’s look back at how we reached this week’s deeply unwelcome position. It all began with the publication of expenses claimed by MPs before 2008, which became known as the “Expenses Scandal”. The public were rightly outraged by what had been going on. They were so angry that the leaders of political parties felt they had to do something to curry favour with voters. They responded by making what I thought were unwise and illogical promises. All we needed were clear rules that prevented abuse of the expenses system.

In the run up to the 2010 General Election, both the Conservatives and the  Liberal Democrat’s said they would reduce substantially the number of MPs. They said this would “cut the cost of politics” (at the same time as increasing the size of the unelected House of Lords to 800!) It followed that after the election in 2010, the Coalition partners agreed to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. An Act of Parliament, the ‘Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act’ was passed in 2011, which included an instruction to the four Boundary Commissions to decide on the precise boundaries of the 600 new constituencies. In the event the Lib Dem’s later changed their minds, and no vote by MPs has ever been taken. But the plan has never gone away.

These new constituency boundaries are being sold as being needed to equalise the size of constituencies. As populations move from poorer  quality housing in cities to more desirable leafy suburbs, the size of constituencies do need to be adjusted accordingly. No-one will disagree with that. Everyone, including me accepts that. But there is absolutely no reason to cut the number of MPs by 50 to do it. The cut just makes the whole equalisation process much more disruptive and traumatic, hitting rural areas in particular.

And then we are also told that every constituency must be of almost exactly the same size. Why on earth must every constituency population be within a 5% range of the average. Why not 10%, or 8%. Just a figure plucked out of thin air. What is the point of having Boundary Commissioner costing vast sums of money to come up with a sensible structure, and then to tie their hands so they cannot take into account geography, or history, or culture because of this 5% rule. My view has been that a tolerance of 8% would make the review much more acceptable.

The new proposed constituency boundaries are particularly damaging to Wales. I accept that there must be some reduction because Wales currently sends 40 MPs to Westminster. The Wales population indicates there should be 34/35 Welsh MPs. But the reduction to 600 seats takes the 40down to 29, a sudden dramatic disruptive cut. And the second reason this is so damaging to Wales and that the Wales Boundary Commission has so little flexibility is that most constituencies have the immovable borders the sea and Offa’s Dyke. It makes reform of constituencies an impossible task.

I am opposed to the reduction in Parliamentary constituencies and have been urging (and will continue to urge) the Government not to go ahead with this plan. I hope the anticipated vote on the new boundaries will not take place in October, as planned.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Choosing the Leader of the Conservative Party

I am an enthusiastic supporter of Theresa May. I hope she remains as Conservative Leader and Prime Minister for the foreseeable future. Though I do accept that “foreseeable” could have a variety of interpretations! Delivering a referendum result when many on the losing side refuse to accept the result is a near impossible task. It needs a high level resilience and bloodymindedness to lead in such circumstances, especially when the noises off are high volume. Our current Prime Minister is the best person to lead us through this challenge. Even though I might think it self defeating idiocy, I accept that there are others thinking about how to engineer a leadership contest, and thinking about how it should be organised.

I’ve also read reports suggesting that Leave supporters are being encouraged to join the Conservative Party in preparation for such a leadership vote. Supposedly they are going to “flood” the party with new members. Some MPs are concerned about this - mainly because of what happened to the Labour Party, bringing Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership. Personally, I’m keen to welcome anyone who wants to join our party - unless we know their main intention is to enter to spread poison. Let’s welcome them in. 

I just don’t see a problem. The Conservative Party has rules to make it difficult for a Trojan horse to succeed. Since the process was changed while William Hague was the leader, Party members choose between two MPs put forward by MPs themselves.  Previously just MPs had chosen the Leader. I agreed with this process then, and do so now. There is some noise about changing the rules to make it easier for certain candidates. I do not agree with this. Changes should be considered only after very careful research and for a good reason - not just to help any individual.
The Conservative Party does not have the mass membership that has been the case in the past. The official figures are said to be not that much over 100,000. It’s important that those members, without whom we would have no party at all, should  have a say in choosing the Leader. But I believe it’s also important that those who know the candidates well, having worked with them and watched them operate under pressure should also have a say. Leaving the choice of Leader to a comparatively small membership would indeed open up the risk of being swamped by a sudden influx of new recruits – the very thing that happened in the Labour Party which brought Jeremy Corbyn to the Leadership. 
There is therefore a strong case to create the right balance between representative and direct decision-making. MPs are elected to make decisions on our behalf. Party members also have an important role, one of the most important of which is to have a major say in choosing an individual who might be best placed to govern the nation, based on long and personal acquaintance with the candidates as well as knowing their views. As William Hague has said, “if you remove the gatekeepers from a political system, you have no idea what is going to come through the gate”.
But the worst of all arguments is to change the system by which we elect our leader in order to favour a particular candidate or particular outcome in the short term. This will never turn out as expected. 
The more people who take part in choosing their representatives, the better across all tiers of government. But those elected Leader will be stronger and more effective if they have strong support from those who know them best.7

Friday, August 24, 2018

Report from Rural Colombia

Now it’s on to the third leg of my three week Colombia visit. First leg was the capital, Bogata where I had arranged lots of meetings to get a feel for the politics and trade potential. Second leg was the city of Medellin, learning about how city planning and people power has transformed the most murderous city in the world into a modern, well connected economic powerhouse.

The third leg of my Colombia ‘familiarisation visit’ is to rural Colombia.

This leg began in Boyaca, where I visited the magnificent monuments marking two of the key battles in Colombia’s struggle to cast off the imperial yoke of Spain - at Vargas Swamp near Paipa and at the battle of Boyaca itself which prevented the Spanish forces reaching Santafe Bogata (at it was then known). These two battles signalled the end of Spanish rule in South America.
Was were very relaxed until reaching Tunja (pronounced toon-hah), when our brilliant driver Tatiana jumped out at her house and handed me the keys for the onward drive to Tuta. As darkness fell. Not sure I’ll ever completely forgive her. Panicked when a police car appeared in my mirror with blue lights flashing. What on earth had I done wrong now? Actually nothing. Hadn’t realised they always have their blue lights flashing.

A lovely evening with my daughter-in-law, Zulma’s extended family and their pet animals. Commitment to family is very strong in rural Colombia.  The landscape of Boyaca is not dissimilar to Wales, except more mountainous and extensive with the Andes providing backdrop in the distance.

And then today we drove via Bogota to a small town called Anapoima. What a drive. Seemed like it was over top of the Andes. The road was being widened (well actually rebuilt). Maybe 30 miles of it. It’s the sort of dramatic infrastructure development Colombians specialise in. In Medellin they are building a tunnel through a mountain to create better access to the airport. In Bogata, they are going to build an underground system - from scratch. They would sort out the Third Runway at Heathrow in short order.  Today I travelled along a motorway being built over the Andes, which makes M5 improvements seem a mini job. Anapoima is nearer to the Pacific coast than where I’ve been so far. Hotter and more muggy. First encounter with a mosquito.

I’ve learned so much about Colombia while during my visit. So much more to learn. It’s a country of great contrasts and massive physical differences. And I’ve not even mentioned the Amazon or the Pacific Coast. The whole country is utterly breathtaking. And for someone who loves flowers, it’s a dreamworld. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Report from Medellin

Report from Medellin.

Medellin is the most stunning place I’ve ever been to. In the early 1990s, it was the most murderous city in the world (over 27,000 murders in 1992 alone). Today Medellin is mainly peaceful. This transformation has involved a truly astonishing level of forgiveness. Equally astonishing is the speed at which the population of Medellin has grown. In 1950 there were around 350,000 residents. By 1970, the population had increased by a factor of 6, and today Medellin has 2.64 million residents - a truly dramatic urbanisation. It’s also become connected to other adjacent settlements taking the total population to over 4 million. 

This population is crammed into a city with more defined dividing lines than anywhere else I’ve known  - leading to huge physical and social challenges that ‘city planning’ has sought to counter. With outstanding success it seems to me. 

Firstly, there is the ‘Rio’ area. The Medellin River runs through the length of the city. The rapid urbanisations had destroyed its natural and ecological value to the city. Today the river valley floor has been, and continues to be transformed. There is more to do. There are impressive buildings, a striking civic centre, and a brilliant botanical garden. All very impressive but it’s not what’s most striking. That’s the connection of this job-creating river central zone to the much poorer population which lives on the steep hillsides rising up from the river. Probably over a million of mostly poor people live in what are shanty developments. Very small self-built houses, with tin rooms, often weighed down by rocks and pieces of wood. No way could this population walk to where the jobs are. The most astonishing aspect of Medellin planning has been the transportation system to connect these people with the more prosperous parts of the city. A Metro, connected to a Metro cable car system, which brings the houses on the hillside into contact with the work in the valley. It’s the equivalent of the tube system in London. The end of the Metro line is at Santa Domingo Cable Car Station high up the side of the Andes. Santa Domingo is also the start Point for another cable car which travels miles through forest treetops across the Andes heights. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of wildness. A journey not to be missed.

The basis of the city planning is transportation up the hillsides by several cable car systems and escalators. And there are parks, offering education and other services around every stop. Planning aimed to serve the poorest people. Farsighted. Inspirational. There are parks all over, promoting environmental awareness and connections across the city. The Parques del Rio Medellin involves recreating the river environment that had been lost. So much I could write about. 

Much of the rest of the world think of Medellin as the home base of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious drugs baron ever. It was in Medellin he based his evil empire. He died in 1993, whether shot by the police or by his own hand we do not know. Since his death Medellin has undergone a revolution - in a good way. Led by the people of the city who turned away from violence. The world should know about this remarkable turnaround. 

How has all this been paid for? It’s another remarkable story. Much of it funded by a publicly owned public services company, providing the water, energy, gas and telecoms. The EPM (Empressas Publicas de Medellin) is a dream come reality for Jeremy Corbyn, providing a huge annual payment to the city. 

Of course there are still problems. So many people to be rehoused. I hope they are not simply being piled high in tower blocks, creating ghettos of the future! Hopefully the parks will help prevent this. And every Colombian city will have to manage an influx of desperate Venezuelans escaping the economic disaster in their country. The border is hundreds of miles away but they are to be seen walking the roads or perched on the back of Lorries - mostly heading to Bogata. And while Colombia is a country I could love, its cities are noisy, and over dominated by the motor car, full of wannabe Lewis Hamilton’s in yellow taxis. 

And then there’s the flowers. Incredible flowers, and wonderful wildlife. Every August there is the Medellin flower festival, the best flower carnival in the world. Regrettably I missed it, having to move on to other parts of this fascinating country. Next few days, before returning to Montgomeryshire, I will be in what I’m promised is quieter countryside surrounded by exotic birds and flowers. Next stop Boyaca. But be back home for Berriew Show.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Colombia - Report from Bogota.

I am spending the first weeks of August in Bogotá, capital city of Colombia in South America. It’s a country not as well known within the UK as its size and importance warrants. Colombia has a population of 50 million. It is bigger than France and Germany combined. Bogotá itself has a similar population to Greater London. It’s a safe developing city, transformed from the danger of attacks and kidnapping that has been a feature of its past. Bogota is built on a high plateau, surrounded by the mighty Andes mountain range providing a spectacular backdrop to the city.  Colombia is a fascinating and diverse modern country with an equally fascinating, sometimes dark history. More British people should visit.

There are two reasons for my being in South America for three weeks this August. Firstly, I have a family interest in that two of our grandchildren are half Welsh - half Colombian. Although they live in the UK and spend much of their time in Berriew, they will always have close family ties with Boyaca, a region of Colombia north east of Bogotá. Family links are very strong throughout Latin America. And secondly, as the UK leaves the EU, I think every politician has some responsibility to use their own capabilities and contacts to help develop diplomatic and trade links with nations of the world beyond Europe.

Colombia, like all of Latin America has a bloody and violent history, particularly as independence was being won through brute force from the Spanish imperialists. Internationally acclaimed author, Robert Harvey, who lives near Meifod has written a book, the Romantic Revolutionary, based on the life of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of much of Latin America. If you want a flavour of the sheer violence and brutality which has shaped modern South America, it’s a must read.

It’s been a historically important week to be in Bogotá. On Tuesday, Ivan Duque was inaugurated as Colombia’s 60th President following a closely fought election, when three men were involved in a bitterly fought contest. There was no violence or corruption reported. Duque is a typically modern politician - charming, engaging, can sing and play football, but with little political experience. He is also closely linked to controversial and influential former President, Alvaro Uribe. So he is an unknown quantity, and faces two huge challenges. Plus several lesser challenges.

Firstly he has to consolidate and take forward the ‘peace process’ which ended a 50 year terrorist campaign by the FARC, (amongst other groups) following an election campaign which has led to concerns about his commitment to it. Hopefully, questioning of the peace accord and implementing adjustments to it does not lead to a resumption of violence. And secondly, President Duque has to take on the drug cartels, and the wanton murder of human rights defenders who challenge the drug cartel’s activities. President Duque will have no choice but take a stronger role in challenging these ‘sons of Escobar’ if his 4 year presidency is to be a success. And on Monday, there was a ‘supposed’ assassination attempt on the life of President Maduro next door in Venezuela, whose history is so intertwined with Colombia. Venezuela is a political and economic disaster, brought to its knees by the policies of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Huge numbers of desperate Venezuelans are crossing the border into Colombia, bringing yet more challenge to Duque. 

Over the last few days I’ve met with politicians of the ‘left’ and ‘right’, the British Embassy in Bogotá, and the important Bogotá Chamber of Commerce. Later this week I will meet with Mayor of Medellin, Colombia’s second city, which is bigger than any other city in the UK, and which this week hosts the week long biggest flower festival in the world. Colombia is a truly amazing country, with a history steeped in tragedy and a future steeped in promise. I believe the UK is well placed to help it achieve its potential.