28 September 2017
Week in Brief: UK
MAY IN FLORENCE: In a speech on Friday, the Prime Minister proposed a two-year transition period which would, in effect, put off much of Brexit until 2021. During that period Britain would no longer have any representation at EU level but would continue to participate in the single market as now, subject to EU rules. Free movement of people would also continue subject to a requirement for registration, presumably necessary for an ultimate decision on who was here before any cut-off date.
Mrs May also said that Britain would meet its contribution to the current seven-year budget so that no other countries would be disadvantaged, and that Britain was committed to the security of Europe. The latter factor would not be used as a bargaining chip.
In making the speech the Prime Minister sought to tread a narrow path. On the one hand she hoped that the concession on the current round of the EU expenditure would be sufficient to allow the Commission to move to the next step and open discussions on trade. On the other she needs to retain the support of Brexiteers,
On the first, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk has said that not enough progress has yet been made. On the second, Boris Johnson immediately tried to claw back momentum by seeking to establish red lines, in particular as to whether the UK will be bound by any new EU laws made during the transition period. In principle this is a fair question as we will have no representation when the rules are made. In practice, though, it is hardly a major point and to start referring to it as a red line smells a little of desperation. More importantly perhaps the Foreign Office has set up a hard Brexit think tank. Apart from this being a sensible thing to do, it will strengthen our negotiating position by making it clear that a hard exit is a possible outcome.
MAY’S UN SPEECH: Mrs May used a 15 minute address to the UN in New York to lay about herself a bit. She criticised Russia over its use of vetoes on the Security Council to protect President Assad and the US for pulling out of the Paris climate deal. In addition she criticised the efficiency of the UN itself, where the Department for International Development has described UNESCO as failing in its effectiveness. She threatened to withdraw one third of Britain’s £90 million annual commitment unless thing improve, although that would not affect the U.K.’s £2 billion contribution to peacekeeping. Britain is the sixth biggest contributor to the UN.
GOVERNMENT BORROWING: According to the Office for Budget Responsibility an unexpectedly high tax take, combined with a drop in government expenditure, has reduced the August deficit to below expected levels. That follows encouraging figures for July which actually showed a surplus. The figure for a whole year could be between £10 billion and £13 billion beneath the expected level of £58 million. It will be remembered, of course, that we are talking about the rate of increase in the national debt (which stands at £1.77 trillion) not the debt itself.
Still, the results may give Mr Hammond room to relax austerity slightly in his budget on 22 November. Before we crack open the champagne, however, it is worth wondering how sustainable the improvement is. With inflation creeping up, households may begin to reduce expenditure and that, in turn, would take down those crucial VAT receipts.
ACTIVE LORDS: The Electoral Reform Society says that one in seven peers did not make any contribution to debates in the six months to April 2017. Nonetheless they claimed an average of £11,091. A spokesman for the House of Lord’s pointed out that no account is taken of other activities such as committee work. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has suggested that the Lord’s could be reduced to about half its size.
LEADERSHIP: The National Executive Committee of the Labour Party has reduced the number of MPs required to endorse a leadership candidate from 15% of the Parliamentary party to 10%. The change in the rules should make it easier for left-wing candidates disliked by the Parliamentary party to become leader.
BREXIT: The Labour Party conference has decided not to hold a debate on the party’s approach to Brexit. There seem to be considerable divisions; Sir Kier Starmer puts emphasis on membership of the single market and the customs union, whereas Jeremy Corbyn is concerned that remaining part of the European economic institutions with their ban on state aid could derail his nationalisation agenda.
NATIONALISATION: The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has promised to nationalise assets built and maintained under the Private Finance initiative, as well as the Royal Mail, water, energy and rail companies. The pledge may play well at the Labour Party conference but would be difficult to implement because of the large upfront cost. In any case a blanket approach makes little sense. The Royal Mail, for example, is a company wrestling with the changes in the behaviour of its customer base and it is hard to imagine that the flexibility needed to do this is best provided in the public sector. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the private sector does profit from PFI so the question of whether the public sector gets value for that profit is a fair one, at least in the case of future projects. The Party have admitted gaming the run on sterling which would follow its election.
UNSAFE SURGERIES: The Care Quality Commission has completed its inspection of GPs’ practices, finding that one in seven doctors’ surgeries still have safety issues although only 2% were rated inadequate. Professor Field, the chief inspector, suggested that patients should move to better performing surgeries. That, however, is easier said than done with many surgeries already oversubscribed.
ALZHEIMER’S DRUG: It is understood that algorithms, developed in Italy and expected to be used by the NHS within ten years, should enable Alzheimer’s disease to be predicted well before any symptoms emerge. The algorithms are used in analysing brain scans and are said to be 86% accurate.
FRESHERS’ WEEK: Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University, has suggested that universities should discourage excessive drinking and drugs, particularly during freshers’ week, in order to safeguard the mental health of their students. His report, which suggests mentoring and the availability of tranquil spaces and welfare dogs, also said that schools should also do more to prepare students for university, including teaching them about managing their finances and proper balances of food and exercise.
ANTI-TERRORISM LEGISLATION: Max Hill QC, independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has suggested that terrorists should be dealt with under normal criminal laws rather than special legislation. In many cases, that of murder for example, existing laws are sufficient to deal with the matter. Using special terrorist laws can be seen by minority communities as targeting them.
MURDERED TEACHER: Emily Kelty, a former head teacher from Taunton, who was murdered in Brazil last week after being robbed, had expressed concern that she might be killed. A number of people, including the local civil police chief, have been murdered in the area which is particularly dangerous.
RAIL STRIKES: The dispute about giving drivers the power to open and close doors on trains rumbles on with the Rail, Maritime and Transport union planning strikes on Southern Region, Merseyrail, Northern and Greater Anglia Networks on October 3 and October 5.
UBER: 700,000 people have signed a petition objecting to the refusal by Transport for London to renew Uber’s London licence when it expires at the end of this month. The decision is to be appealed to the Westminster Magistrates Court who will hear it de novo. That is to say that they look at the evidence without regard to TfL’s decision rather than merely reviewing whether that decision was irrational. Uber have brought in a top legal team and no doubt TfL will do the same. We can look forward, then, to a full analysis of whether Uber complied with its licence, for example by carrying out proper criminal checks on drivers. TfL will say “no” but the company will point to a series of clean compliance inspections as evidence to the contrary.
Uber will be allowed to continue operating until the appeal is heard, but what will happen if the original decision is upheld? Uber’s supporters draw a picture of drivers left without income and women unable to get home in safety. That has to be nonsense. Already other operators are vying to take over and, when they have done so, the same drivers will presumably take the same ladies home but with a different company supervising and taking the profit. The other interesting angle is a political one. TfL is chaired by mayor Sadiq Khan, a rising figure in the Labour movement and seen by some as a possible future Prime Minister. Vigorous action in favour of the consumer may not play badly with the public and favouring the unionised cabbies against an aggressive American corporation could go down well within the party. Just why wouldn’t you do it if you were Mr Khan?
CHOPPER OSBORNE: Mr Osborne has been criticised by colleagues for saying that he would not rest until Mrs May was “chopped up in bags in my freezer”. Unfortunately for him, the comment was reported in Esquire magazine. Although he has not actually apologised he has admitted that intemperate language is out of place. Mrs May said that if there was an apology she would accept it but that she had not actually read it.
FAWCETT STATUE: Planning permission has been given for a statue of Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square. Fawcett was a prominent feminist campaigner whose approach was rejected by the more militant Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst’s statue is expected to be erected down by the Thames in due course.
WOMEN’S FOOTBALL: Mark Sampson, the head coach of the England women’s football team, has been fired following allegations of inappropriate behaviour. It is understood that there have been concerns for some time but that none of the behaviour complained about was illegal.
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