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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Did the vote leave campaigns cheat during the referendum?

It is most probably far too late to get anywhere in challenging the validity of the EU referendum result, but nevertheless the extent to which the Vote Leave campaigns were prepared to break the rules to win is well worth noting.

It is already a matter of record that the campaign group Leave.EU has been fined £70,000 for breaches of election law in the 2016 EU referendum. According to the Electoral Commission, this group, which was separate from the official pro-Brexit group Vote Leave, failed to report “at least” £77,380 which it spent.

The Electoral Commission said Leave.EU had exceeded the spending limit for “non-party registered campaigners” by at least 10% by failing to include at least £77,380 in its spending return – the fee paid to campaign organiser Better for the Country Ltd – and added the overspend “may well have been considerably higher than that”.

Its spending return also did not include services Leave.EU had received from a US campaign strategy firm, Goddard Gunster, and the group “inaccurately reported” three loans totalling £6m from Mr Banks – including who had provided them – and did not provide invoices or receipts for 97 separate payments, totalling £80,224. The Commission has referred Leave.EU chief executive Liz Bilney to the police, saying it had reasonable grounds to suspect she had committed criminal offences over campaign spending.

The Electoral Commission’s investigation also looked into whether Leave.EU had received any services from Cambridge Analytica which should have been declared on its spending return, but found no evidence that the group received donations or paid for services from the political consultancy.

Now, the Guardian reports that Vote Leave, the lead campaigner for a Brexit vote, and BeLeave, a campaign group run by an activist named Darren Grimes, used identical data to target audiences, according to a letter from Facebook to the Electoral Commission. This raises new questions about potential coordination between the two groups:

Vote Leave spent millions of pounds buying targeted online advertising through AggregateIQ during the referendum campaign, pushing up against its strict £7m spending limit. However, in the closing days of the campaign, Vote Leave donated £625,000 to Grimes, who then also spent the money with AggregateIQ. At that time Grimes was regularly seen volunteering in the Vote Leave office.

Both Vote Leave and Grimes have insisted that there was no coordination between the campaigns on how the money was spent, which could potentially have broken electoral law.

The new letter was sent from Facebook to the Electoral Commission as part of its ongoing investigation into potential breaches of campaign finance rules and was published by the parliamentary committee investigating fake news. It reveals that Vote Leave and BeLeave appear to have used three identical datasets during the referendum campaign to locate potential recipients of targeted pro-Brexit Facebook adverts.

“They were the exact same audiences,” said Facebook’s Gareth Lambe, who also revealed that $2m (£1.5m) of AggregateIQ’s entire $3.5m Facebook advertising spend over the last four years appeared to be associated with the EU referendum.

In addition to Vote Leave and BeLeave, AggregateIQ ran adverts for the Democratic Unionist party’s pro-Brexit campaign, as well as another campaign group called Veterans for Britain.

If this collusion is proven then it could be another serious breach of electoral law. We will now need to see whether the Electoral Commission is prepared to take its investigation further with this new information.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Labour leader rules out Norway option but what is his alternative?

The Guardian reports that Jeremy Corbyn has told Labour MPs that a Norway-style option cannot be considered by the party, but faces a party split after rebel Lords passed an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill which would keep membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) as an option.

EEA membership, which is often described as the Norway option gives countries full access to the EU’s internal market, allowing it to trade goods with EU states without customs fees, except food and drinks which are subsidised by the EU. Iceland and Liechtenstein are also members of the EEA, but the terms mean accepting freedom of movement and, as a non-EU state, the UK would have to accept EU regulations with no seat at the table in Brussels.

It is unlikely that option would satisfy either side and yet Corbyn’s objective is apparently to unite both leave and remain supporters. At some stage he is going to have to get off the fence.

Labour’s present position just offers succour to Theresa May’s objective of a hard Brexit. Some of the frontbenchers talk the talk but so far they have been unable to get the leadership to walk the walk.

Whilst Jeremy Corbyn continues to rule out options, we wait for baited breath to see what his alternative is. Will he have one? It is looking more and more unlikely.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Is the Home Office fit for purpose?

The Guardian reports on claims that the Home Office has been accused of being unfit for purpose and guilty of “shambolic incompetence” after letters written by Caroline Nokes, the immigration minister, appeared to contradict what she told a parliamentary committee about when she became aware of the problems experienced by highly skilled migrants:

Nokes last week told Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, that she hadn’t had time to investigate revelations in the Guardian that at least 1,000 highly skilled migrants seeking indefinite leave to remain in the UK were wrongly facing deportation.

Officials were citing a paragraph of the Immigration Rules designed in part to tackle terrorists and individuals judged to be a threat to national security under the controversial 322(5) section of the Immigration Act.

At the committee hearing last week, Cooper asked Nokes: “Why have you not looked into what is happening, to find out how many of these cases are serious fraud cases and how many involve ‘trivial mistakes’?” Nokes replied: “Because there have been only two working days since this issue was flagged up”.

However, letters written by Nokes and obtained by the Guardian appear to show she was aware of the issue in February. They also suggest that concerns about the use of 322(5) were among the first issues she was made aware of when she took up the ministerial role in January. Asked to respond, the Home Office declined to comment.

The claim that the Home Office was not fit for purpose was made by the then Home Secretary, John Reid twelve years ago. The Tony Blair Government, in which he served, was also obsessed with immigration. The question though has to be asked as to whether we should let Ministers off the hook so easily.

What if it is not the civil servants who are at fault at all, but the fact that politicians are asking them to do the impossible in meeting unachievable targets, and that in doing so are damaging our economy and destroying the lives of individuals and their families.

It is a controversial theory I know, but nevertheless it seems to fit all the facts.

Monday, May 14, 2018

UK Government hypocrisy or irony on EU?

The British poet, Elizabeth Bibesco, once said that ‘Irony is the hygiene of the mind’ but there is nothing cleansing about the hypocritic decision by the UK Government to host a summit encouraging six European countries to join the EU for the sake of their “security, stability and prosperity”, months before it is due to sign its own Brexit withdrawal deal with Brussels.

The Independent reports that in July London will play host to Western Balkans governments including Serbia and Albania, as well as existing EU member states, to discuss reforms to pave the way to future EU enlargement:

The paper says that the summit is part of the so-called Berlin Process, a series of meetings aimed at supporting the region towards joining the bloc and described by the European parliament’s research arm as “bringing a new perspective and impetus to the enlargement process”:

The leaders of EU candidate countries Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia will attend, as well as those of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo – two states who have both expressed an interest in joining the bloc but have not yet been accepted as candidates.

They will be joined by representatives of the governments of EU countries with an interest in the region such as Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

Asked about the summit and the UK’s position on the Western Balkans’ membership of the EU, a Foreign Office spokesperson told The Independent: “We remain of the view that the EU accession process is important to delivering security, stability and prosperity in the Western Balkans.

It is a shame that the UK Government does not take the same view about UK membership of the EU.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Tua culpa maxima

How many pro-Europeans woke up today and stared incredulously at their computer screen as they sought to digest arch-Brexiteer, Dan Hannan’s mea culpa, that our departure from the EU is ‘not working out’ the way it was planned? Who knew there was ever a plan? I thought they were winging it, at least that is how it comes across.

As the UK Business Insider website reports, the Conservative MEP whose speeches against Brussels went viral on YouTube, is now saying that Britain should seek an “Efta-type arrangement, à la Suisse” to protect trade with the EU. This is a clear rift in Brexiteer ranks, with the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg still holding a firm position against any such free trade area.

Mr Hannan expressed surprise that an uncompromising Brexit was being pursued despite the closeness of the 52-48 referendum result which backed Leave. Maybe he should have a quiet word in Theresa May’s ear:

Writing on Conservative Home, he said he was often asked, “not working out the way you thought, is it?” He said: “To be fair, they’ve got a point.” He went on: “I had assumed that, by now, we’d have reached a broad national consensus around a moderate form of withdrawal that recognised the narrowness of the result.”

He backed being in the European Free Trade Association (Efta) — participation in the single market of 500 million people, but without the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

And even there he has ventured back into the land of fantasy negotiations: if we are in a free trade area then there are rules and if there are rules somebody needs to adjudicate disputes. Isn’t it about time these Brexiteers acknowledged that the UK cannot have its cake and eat it?

Once we enter a free trade area or agreement with anybody then we have to be subject to an international arbitration system of some sort, and there has to be free movement. The denial of these basic facts was the lie on which the Leave referendum victory was based. It is time they were called out on it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Open revolt in Labour over Brexit

It has not been a good week for the Labour leadership and their determination to back Theresa May and the Tories in securing a no compromise exit from the European Community.

Two days ago 83 Labour peers defied an order to abstain and instead walked into the lobbies with the Liberal Democrats to help pass an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill saying that remaining in the EEA (the European Economic Area) should be a government Brexit negotiating objective.

And today, the Independent reports that five MPs from the Labour party’s northern heartlands have broken ranks and openly demanded a new referendum on the UK’s withdrawal deal:

The MPs from the Northeast – which heavily backed Leave in the 2016 referendum – said a new vote is essential because the true nature of Brexit is only just emerging.

Writing exclusively for The Independent, they warn plans to leave the single market will devastate family living standards as the future of major manufacturers and employers in their region is thrown into doubt.

Their intervention comes amid rising anger over Mr Corbyn’s failure to seize a chance to force Theresa May into keeping Britain in the single market – despite it also potentially collapsing her government and creating an opportunity to win power.

Labour’s current position is that it “respects” the 2016 referendum, that Britain’s EU membership must end and that the country should leave the single market and customs union to negotiate new relationships to replace them.

But with most projections showing the UK worse off outside the EU’s existing structures, the five northeast MPs have decided to publicly contradict their leader’s position and call for a “people’s vote” on the eventual deal.

Surely, it is time that Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership team abandoned their unthinking support of the Tory position on Brexit and got behind the Liberal Democrats as well, in their call for a confirmatory referendum.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Desperate UKIP drag out the old smears in search for relevance

I don’t often listen to First Minister’s question time in the Welsh Assembly these days, but I had it on in the background yesterday whilst I worked on other things. I was just in time to catch the astonishing contribution from the Welsh UKIP leader, disgraced former Tory MP, Neil Hamilton smear the Welsh teaching profession.

His allegation was that Wales’ education system is being used as a tool of propaganda. He believes that parts of the Welsh Baccalaureate on topics like inequality are being taught from a “centre-left disposition” and that there is a “potential danger” that teachers may be biased, suggesting they may favour the Labour party:

The UKIP Wales leader said the qualification included a “global citizen challenge which deals with issues such as cultural diversity, fair trade, future energy, inequality and poverty”.

“These are all highly political topics which need to be taught in a balanced way if education is not to degrade itself into mere propaganda,” Mr Hamilton told First Minister’s Questions in the Senedd.

He said he had seen the materials being used in teaching the courses which are all, he claimed, “from a centre-left disposition”.

“The false indignation coming from the other side proves the point I’m trying to make here,” Mr Hamilton replied, “that because they control the education system it is being used as a tool of propaganda.”

Mr Hamilton said the “mindset of a teacher is very important” and, quoting polling figures suggesting many secondary school teachers vote Labour, he said: “Even if bias is subconscious it must be regarded as a potential danger”.

I have not seen such a pisspoor attempt to grab headlines for some time, even going to the lengths of seeking to revive the ‘loony-left’ headlines so prevalent in the tabloids in the 1980s about certain Labour-run councils.

Carwyn Jones was quite right in his response, stating that “anything is centre-left” from Mr Hamilton’s perspective. The First Minister alleged that the Welsh UKIP Leader had supported the now-repealed Section 28 law that had banned local authorities from intentionally promoting the acceptability of homosexuality.

As a school governor and a Councillor, I come across teachers on a daily basis and, without exception, they are committed, dedicated individuals whose sole motivation is to give their pupils the best possible start in life. I think Hamilton owes the profession an apology.

It just shows how out-of-touch

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Healthcare for travellers under threat from Brexit

I some wonder what those MPs, MEPs and newspapers, who supported us leaving the European Union thought we were signing up for. Did some of them really think we could have our cake and eat it, that we could leave the single market and all the European institutions we have been a part of for 43 years and still enjoy the benefits? If so then they have wilfully mislead voters.

The latest panic is a case in point as the Independent reports that Jeremy Hunt has been urged to intervene in Brexit talks to stop British people from losing their right to free healthcare on the continent. Naturally, and quite rightly, there are warnings that changes could prevent those with long-term conditions from leaving the country at all.

The paper says that medical charities have warned that 29,000 kidney dialysis patients who need to attend hospital every other day would face insurmountable costs of more than £800 a week if the European Health Insurance Card, a perk of EU membership that entitles UK residents to the same subsidised care as local patients, goes, effectively putting holidays and rest breaks out of reach for people on ordinary incomes.

And so, 16 MEPs, from the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Green, and Plaid Cymru parties, have called on the health secretary to “stand up for dialysis patients, who on top of struggling to comprehend their diagnosis, now risk losing the freedom that the EHIC card permits them”:

“Private travel insurance does not provide a viable alternative to EHIC card for dialysis patients,” they wrote.

“Insurance companies will not cover the treatment, as a pre-existing condition. The cost of paying privately for dialysis sessions in the EU is up to €1,000 (£880) a week depending on the circumstances and procedures used.”

This is just one of many joint arrangements that will disappear once we leave the EU, and yet what did we expect? It is impossible to negotiate an exemption for everything. The only way we can safeguard these benefits is to abandon Brexit and stay in the EU. When will politicians wake up to that reality?

Monday, May 07, 2018

How our economy is being undermined by the Tory obsession with immigration

In many ways nobody should be surprised at claims reported in the Guardian that at least 1,000 highly skilled migrants seeking indefinite leave to remain in the UK are wrongly facing deportation under a section of the Immigration Act designed in part to tackle terrorists and individuals judged to be a threat to national security.

The Tories’ obsession with unachievable net migration figures has always been blind to the best interests of the country as is evident from this story last month, that hundreds of doctors recruited by the NHS from overseas have been denied visas by the Home Office, leading to increased pressures in the health service.

However, the use of the controversial section 322(5) of the Immigration Act to deny indefinite leave to remain to highly skilled and economically desirable workers is a new low. Those refused include teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers and IT professionals. Many are being accused of lying in their applications either for making minor and legal amendments to their tax records, or having discrepancies in declared income.

The paper says that in one case, the applicant’s tax returns were scrutinised by three different appeal courts who had found no evidence of any irregularities. The same figures are nevertheless used as the basis for a 322(5) refusal because of basic tax errors allegedly made by the Home Office itself:

Highly Skilled Migrants is a support group that represents over 600 workers and says it is in contact with over 400 more, most of whom are facing deportation under section 322(5), with the rest still waiting for a decision by the Home Office. Aditi Bhardwaj, one of the organisers, said the group has raised about £40,000 to challenge the Home Office in the courts.

“Ten members of our group have taken the Home Office to the first tier tribunal over their use of 322(5) in the past six months. Nine of these won their cases, with the appeal judges ruling the government’s use of section 322(5) was wrong,” said Bhardwaj.

“At best, this suggests that the Home Office is recklessly incompetent in its use of 322(5). At worst, however, the section is being applied by the Home Office so often and being overturned so frequently when challenged at the highest level, that I question whether there is a blanket policy which the Home Office is using internally, which no one is aware about.”

The paper says that cases include a former Ministry of Defence mechanical engineer who is now destitute, a former NHS manager currently £30,000 in debt, thanks to Home Office costs and legal fees, who spends her nights fully dressed, sitting in her front room with a suitcase in case enforcement teams arrive to deport her, and a scientist working on the development of anti-cancer drugs who is now unable to work, rent or access the NHS.

Not only is this an inhuman way to treat people, but it flies directly against the UK’s national interest in developing our economy and delivering high quality public services. No party that presides over such a regime can claim to be patriotic, compassionate or competent.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Computers don’t make errors, human do

As health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, stood up in the House of Commons to make a statement apologising for what he termed a “computer algorithm failure dating back to 2009”, as a result of which an estimated 450,000 women between the ages of 68 and 71 had not been invited to their final screening for breast cancer, my first thought was that computers don’t make errors of this nature.

This is not to pigeon-hole me as a new technology geek who believes in a fully-automated future. I refuse to use internet banking for example, as I don’t trust it. In my local bank I prefer to deal with human beings as opposed to the cash and paying-in machines, and I am a late adopter of advancements in technology, preferring to wait until software and hardware is tested before acquiring. You would never catch me wearing smart glasses or a smart watch.

But I do use technology. I just prefer to keep it in perspective. And perspective is what we need when seeking to attach blame or finding explanations for disastrous failures such as that surrounding breast screening.

The fact is that, by-and-large, computers do what they are programmed to do. If a mistake has been made that put nearly half a million women at risk then that was a human error relating to wrong inputs or poor programming. People do make mistakes. We learn from them and from being honest with ourselves and others as to what they are. To stand up in Parliament and blame the computers is not just disingenuous therefore, it is also dangerous, because it might mean that the failure could be repeated.

My sympathies are with Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times. He agrees that the breast screening error was down to humans, not the machine. But he also draws a distinction between holding the Secretary of State personally responsible for coding errors in computer programs somewhere in the entrails of the NHS behemoth, and on the other hand, the chief executive of TSB being personally responsible for pushing through a rushed switch to an off-the-peg computer system of uncertain compatibility, which he claimed would bring in “the humanisation of digital” and “unheard-of” speed and flexibility. leading to human misery and delay.

Computerisation is not an end in itself. It is a change-management process and should be treated as such. That means that managers need to look at how computers can improve and reform processes rather than seeking to put machines in for the sake of it.

Lawson gives an example of the flipside of this debate, the much greater speed and efficiency of the computer-based model:

A friend of mine who runs a data firm that has hospitals among its clients observed: “I used to work for the NHS, and we sent out letters individually, licking the stamps one by one. But now it’s hundreds of thousands of emails at the push of a button. And what took 10 days now takes half an hour.”

Lawson gives other examples of how new technology has speeded up and improved health treatments and diagnosis, giving doctors some breathing space to properly evaluate patients and prioritise their work.

Computerisation and new technology is a force for good. We are not yet at the stage where we are having to invoke Asimov’s three laws, nor do I expect us to reach that zenith for some time. But let’s not forget that at the end of the day these advancements are dependent on humans to work, and we are fallible.

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