Thursday, November 23, 2017

Govt unwavering commitment to animal welfare.

Firstly, let’s set out the base position. The UK Government is committed to the very highest standards of animal welfare. We want to make the United Kingdom a world leader in the care and protection of animals.

It has been suggested by some (and has led to an email campaign criticising Conservative MPs) that the vote last week on New Clause 30 of the EU Withdrawal Bill somehow signalled a weakening in the protection of animals. That is wholly wrong. Voting against the amendment was not a vote against the idea that animals are sentient and feel pain. Ministers explained on the floor of the house that the Government’s policies on animal welfare are driven by our recognition that animals are indeed sentient beings. We are acting energetically to reduce the risk of harm to animals – whether on farms or in the wild. The vote against New Clause 30 was the rejection of a faulty amendment, which would not have achieved its stated aims of providing appropriate protection for animals.

The Prime Minister has already made clear that we will strengthen our animal welfare rules. The government will ensure that any necessary changes required to UK law are made in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is recognised after we leave the EU. The EU Withdrawal Bill is not the right place to address this. However we are considering the right legislative vehicle.

We are already proposing primary legislation to increase maximum sentences for animal cruelty from six months to five years, and the creation of a new statutory, independent body to uphold environmental standards.

The current EU instrument, Article 13 has not delivered the progress we want to see. It does not have direct effect in law – in practice its effect is very unclear and it has failed to prevent practices across the EU which are unacceptably cruel and painful to animals.

In contrast, here in the UK, we are improving animal welfare standards without EU input and beyond the scope of Article 13. We are making CCTV mandatory in all slaughterhouses – a requirement which goes above and beyond any EU rule. We will consult on draft legislation to jail animal abusers for up to five years – more than almost every other European nation. We propose combatting elephant poaching with a ban on the ivory trade which is more comprehensive than anywhere else in Europe. Our ban on microbeads which harm marine animals has been welcomed by Greenpeace as “the strongest in the world”, and is certainly the strongest in Europe.

Once we have left the EU there is even more we could do. EU rules prevent us from restricting or banning the live export of animals for slaughter. EU rules also restrict us from cracking down on puppy smuggling or banning the import of puppies under 6 months. Article 13 has not stopped any of these practices – but leaving the EU gives us the chance to do much better. We hope to say more in these areas next year.

This government will continue to promote and enhance animal welfare, both now and after we have left the EU.

The Govt position on sentience of animals.

Had a lot of emails commenting about the status of animal welfare legislation following a vote in the House of Commons last week when considering the EU Withdrawal Bill. Not sure that every email sender has heard or read the Government contribution to the debate. For those who are interested, or concerned about welfare of animals, both domestic and wild, I’ve included the relevant extract from the Record of Proceedings which outlines why the amendment referred to was superfluous and potentially damaging to the clarity of the legal ‘status’ of sentient animals. I will also post, based on the Secretary of States response to MPs who have asked for an accurate summary of the Govt position. (To follow) 

“Article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union places an obligation on the European Union when developing certain EU policies and on member states when developing and implementing those EU policies to have full regard to the welfare requirements of animals. The intention of the new clause is to replicate—I am not sure whether it is replicate or duplicate—that obligation in domestic law when we leave the EU.

The reference to animals as sentient beings is, effectively, a statement of fact in article 13, but even though it is, in effect, declaratory, I can reassure the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that it is already recognised as a matter of domestic law, primarily in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. If an animal is capable of experiencing pain and suffering, it is sentient and therefore afforded protection under that Act.

We have made it clear that we intend to retain our existing standards of animal welfare once we have left the EU and, indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has ​made clear, to enhance them. The vehicle of this legislation will convert the existing body of EU animal welfare law into UK law. It will make sure that the same protections are in place in the UK and that laws still function effectively after the UK leaves the EU.

In this country—we should be proud to say this—we have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and we intend to remain a world leader in the future. Leaving the EU will not prevent us from further maintaining such standards; in fact, it will free us in some regards to develop our own gold-standard protections on animal welfare. Animals will continue to be recognised as sentient beings under domestic law, in the way I have described. We will consider how we might       explicitly reflect that sentience principle in wider UK legislation.

To tack on to the Bill the hon. Lady’s new clause, which simply refers to article 13, would add nothing, however, and she was fairly honest in her speech about the limited practical impact it would have. Given that it is ultimately fairly superfluous, it risks creating legal confusion. Obviously, if she wants to propose improvements to wider UK legislation—I am sure she will, knowing her tenacity—she is free to do so, but this new clause is unnecessary, and it is liable only to generate legal uncertainty. Having addressed some of her concerns, I hope that she will withdraw the new clause, having powerfully and eloquently made her point.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Zimbabwe.

I remember as a young man the domination of British politics and our media by the problems of Southern Rhodesia, and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Ian Smith in 1965. It was probably the first ‘foreign affairs’ issue I took a real interest in. As did many British people, I initially was unsure of whether UDI was the right way forward. But again, like many British people, I grew quickly to oppose Ian Smith. He was soon condemned by almost the rest of the world - all except South Africa and Portugal.
It was 13 yrs later that a one man - one vote election (for ‘man’ read ‘woman’ as the lawyers used to say) was held. It delivered a black majority ZANU PF Government led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. There was never any doubt that it was Uncle Bob who called the shots.
Mugabe has been there ever since. But finally, it looks as if his time is up. He has been a very bad leader, in every conceivable way. He and his wife, Grace have stripped massive sums of money from the economy, and bankrupted Zimbabwe. I saw an old trillion dollar Zimbabwean note from 2009 today. It would only buy a loaf of bread!
Mugabe is a clever and devious operator, not to be under-estimated, even though he is of advanced years. But he brought it on himself by sacking his loyal sidekick Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had assumed he would Mugabe’s successor. So had the army. And that matters. The idea had been to clear the way for Mugabe’s wife, Grace to take over the reins, and have the entire nation feed her greed and extravagance. The military were not willing to put up with it. ZANU PF have removed Mugabe from the leadership of the party. It was expected that he would resign as Prime Minister yesterday, but he surprised everyone by refusing. Looks as if he will now be impeached. Hard to be certain where this is going.
The decision to impeach is likely to happen tomorrow. It involves setting up an impeachment committee, which can be done by simple majority. But the vote in the Zimbabwean Parliament to actually impeach requires a two thirds majority - more uncertain. But the people of the wonderfully fertile country of Zimbabwe deserve to see the back of the Mugabes. But what sort of leadership takes over the is an entirely different story. Just hope it happens by means of a full and fair election.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Budget week coming up.

Been watching rugby on TV today, and now just settling down with a glass of wine to write my fortnightly article for the Oswestry and Borders Chronicle. Never totally straightforward deciding what to write about because the Chronicle is not published til Wednesday. Whatever, here goes.

“Over recent weeks, public conversation about British politics has been focussed on two dominating subjects, Brexit and sexual harassment. This week, the main focus must surely move on to matters concerning the economy. Because Wednesday is Budget Day. And this is not easy to comment on today, because I’m writing before I know what’s in it, and it’s probably being read after it has been delivered to MPs in the House of Commons and been published. I just hope I’m not left too red faced by any big differences in my expectation and the reality.

We do know that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond is in a very difficult place. He may well want to increase public spending, but he has no money! UK public borrowing is simply too high. Far too high to allow public spending to be substantially increased. I hear some MPs, especially those on the opposition benches calling for £billions to be ‘invested’ in almost every budget area. I hear calls for an “end to austerity”. These calls are totally irresponsible. I suspect most people know this.

Let us consider the actual numbers. Our National Debt is an eye-watering £1.7 trillion  (£1,720,000,000,000) - plus a variety of off balance sheet debts, that by any normal interpretation are also debts. The UK’s annual deficit is around £45billion (£45,000,000,000). This is how much more the Govt is spending this year that it has coming into the Treasury. It’s all being added to the National Debt. Describing this as “austerity” seems to me to be an abuse of the English language. The reality is that we are living way beyond our means, leaving our children and grandchildren to clear up the mess. It’s a rather selfish attitude.

But there will be increases in spending, as well as various tax changes. I expect some relaxation in the public sector pay cap. It was defendable when inflation was very low, but at present it’s around 3% which may well lead the Chancellor to act. I expect some more money to go to Universal Credit, bringing the time interval before actual payment to be reduced from six weeks. I expect more money to go to the NHS and Social Care. The warnings about winter pressures are too loud to ignore. And there will surely be public money to deliver more housing, especially for first time buyers. If all this is included there will not be muc( scope for anything else.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Loneliness

Went along to an hour long debate in the grand committee room off Westminster Hall today to join a debate on ‘loneliness’. I would like to have made a speech but had not given notice to the Speaker. So many MPs had given notice, so I and a few others in the same boat were limited to interventions. Rachel Reeves, who had secured the debate was generous and allowed me a couple of sentences.
I had but one suggestion to make.
My background before being diverted into public affairs was as a Welsh hill livestock farmer. As a breed, such farmers tend to spend a lot of time on their own. But they do have their livestock for company. Non farmers don’t realise that each sheep is an individual. I ran a flock of around 900, and knew them individually. When the terrible foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak meant that most sheep flocks in the Severn Valley were shot in a mass slaughter, and burnt in massive bonfires on the farm. It had a terrible effect. For weeks, I had fathers of farmers contacting me, asking me to telephone and chat to their sons. It was usually the fathers. I was sometimes chatting to farmers who were in despair until the middle of the night. I used to comment that loneliness can be a silent assassin.
This is all preamble to the point I’d have liked to make. Yes we can have loneliness commissions. Yes  we can have policy statements. I approve. But we can do quite a bit at a personal level, just by telephoning people you know are on their own and lonely. It’s something I do at Christmas. I’ve asked my office manager to put together a list of names, often people I don’t know, just to ring them for a brief chat. I think it makes a real difference to people who don’t have someone to talk to. Ok so it’s very limited in the number I can reach, but I try to persuade others to do the same. It’s a sort of ‘direct action’.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The case for paying up and moving on.

House of Commons is totally submerged in the EU Withdrawal Bill. We have just finished the first 8 hour debate at Committee stage. It’s the first day of eight, to be held over next month or so. The Government carried all six votes tonight comfortably, but there are more difficult challenges ahead. And the Welsh Select Committee, of which I’m a member, also spent this afternoon considering the impact on Wales of the UK leaving the European Union.
We are now reaching the stage when negotiations with the EU are reaching the critical stage. Reminds me of Man Utd ex-manager, Alex Ferguson in late March telling us that it was reaching “Squeaky B*m” time during the final games of the premiership. Even though at present much consideration is being turned to leaving the EU with ‘No Deal’ it’s not what most people want. While I don’t think it would be the catastrophe many predict, it does seem best to me that we should reach a mutually beneficial deal if at all possible. Been my view since Day One. I’ve thought we should have adopted a ‘generous’ approach to negotiations. Importantly I thought we could have taken ‘the high ground’ in granting rights to EU citizens legally resident in the UK without demanding concessions in return. And then there is the money. There’s always the money.
My standard line/soundbite has been that “We should pay what we owe” - without having much idea how much we do actually owe. There are some who think we should pay nothing. I don’t agree that’s feasible. It would guarantee ‘No Deal’. There is talk of paying a divorce bill of £20 billion. There is talk of paying a divorce bill of £50 billion. Must admit I’d be content to support the higher figure if there’s an arguable case to justify it - and if it enabled agreement on a nil or low tariff trade agreement. Accept this is an attitude not widely shared.
Anyway, at long last we are moving on the crucial EU Withdrawal Bill. 6 votes down and no defeats.   Maybe another 50 to go? The Govt has made a good start tonight. But there’s a seriously squeaky time ahead of us. And if the Prime Minister succeeds in delivering an acceptable deal enabling a continuation of trade between the UK and our friends in the EU, she will deserve her place in history.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Message on the Vote Leave Bus.

I try to avoid conversations or discussions about the result of the EU Referendum result on 23 June 2016. I just think that so many look for any media report, which can be interpreted as support for the wisdom of how they voted in the referendum. Almost every report we read concerning the economy is either ‘Bad News’ because of Brexit, or ‘Better News’ despite Brexit. So I generally steer clear in personal conversations. It costs friends! But not this morning. I was drawn in by a couple of friends who are convinced that a majority of the British electorate voted Leave because of a bus that toured the country during the referendum campaign declaring that when we left the EU, we would be able to spend an extra £350 million per week on the NHS. Usually I just mutter to myself along the lines of “that’s cobblers”. It was a campaign slogan, rubbished by the Government and almost everyone else. I’ve certainly made no reference to and not heard others do either - except to also rubbish it. Today, I took on this statement so casually and frequently delivered.
I entirely accept that this figure is not sustainable in a meaningful way. It may be arguable that the payment the UK makes to be a member of the EU totals £350 million per week, but if the rebate and return payments to the UK for specific EU programmes are taken into account, the figure is somewhere between £150 million and £200 million per week, depending how it’s calculated. The point I make is that the message that the bus would have conveyed was that a massive sum of money was being transferred to the EU. There have been little difference in impact if the message on the bus had read £160 million per week or £350 million per week. To almost everyone, it was just a massive sum of money.
But there was one big difference. Those in favour of the UK remaining in the EU were able to rage against what they regarded as a false figure. The Remain campaigners ensured the message on the bus became much the highest profile ‘slogan’ of the entire referendum campaign through endless repetition. It was the Remain campaigners who put the message that a massive sum of money is being sent to the EU every week at the top of the agenda. At the time I thought, and said, and have said ever since that I would not be surprised if the figure was designed to create a row in order to secure attention, through argument and controversy. If it was, it certainly worked.
Now to the final thought I want to ‘float’. Last week the head of NHS England, Simon Stephens said he wanted that £350 million per week for the NHS - a very high profile intervention a few days before the budget. I wonder what the impact would be if the Chancellor were to announce in his budget in a few days time that he intended to do just that. It would involve a commitment to increase the annual NHS budget by about £18 billion from that which existed before 23 June 2016. The Govt has increased the budget by a few billion already, and may well be planning another increase of a few billion in the budget. I also think it’s reasonable to think of Health and Social Care as one budget head. And we know that we should put a quite a few billions more into social care. Of course an extra £18 billion into Health and Social Care would mean reductions in spending elsewhere, but it would be a massive vote winner and shoot the Remain campaigners biggest fox.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Carl Sargeant 1968-2017

I try to write my blog posts about the big issue of the particular day, with an emphasis on Welsh issues. Tonight, I was expecting to write about recommendations to increase membership of the National Assembly to 80 plus, and the fairest way by which they should be elected. I had thought this would be the dominating issue in Wales over the next few days. But my thoughts have been overtaken and totally disrupted in a most brutal, shocking way. A leading member of the National Assembly, Carl Sargeant took his own life this morning. Deeply shocking for those of us who knew him.
I knew Carl quite well. We were Assembly Members together from 2003 til 2007. He was popular across party divides and a good companion in the tearoom. Though he was a big burly man, I found him quite gentle and amusing. I did meet him occasionally after I left the Assembly in 2007, and we would always find time to chat about old times. Even though we fundamentally disagreed about some issues, it never caused the slightest rancour between us. His good nature ensured that.
But we do need to consider the more sensitive aspects of this tragedy. Four days ago Carl had been unceremoniously sacked from his Government position by the Welsh Government First Minister, Carwyn Jones. No argument about this. It’s the sort of judgement political leaders are paid to make. I have no idea why he was sacked, and it seems that Carl had no idea why either. We are just told it was following complaints about his ‘personal behavior’ - thought to be in respect of attitude towards women. Personally, I have no interest in what these issues are, though I’m sure many will have. But there are two glaring questions which will need to be answered.
Firstly, why was Carl not told exactly what he was supposed to have done. How could he defend himself. After all, we have not (yet) reached the stage in British law where an individual is deemed to be guilty until proven to be innocent. It looks to thos e of us gripped by a bit what has happened today that Carl has just but cut off from all support, without even told why.
But it’s the second question that I care most about. When anyone is the subject of a high profile negative media frenzy, it’s tough. Believe me, it’s really tough. Life suddenly becomes desperate, dark and lonely. It’s easy to think everyone is against you. It’s hard to think of the darkness ever lifting. That’s why at Westminster, many of us make a point of chatting to those who are currently in the media spotlight in a negative way. What support did Carl have to help him cope. I hope when we put in place procedures to ensure those who have been abused (and rightly so), we also put in place procedures to provide some pastoral care for individuals, who crash suddenly into a dark place. It’s too late for Carl, but I feel there is a lesson to be learned, and acted on.