Covid: making it stick

Saturday 12 June 2021  

While we obsess about chilled sausages to Northern Ireland, with the saga by no means over, Covid-19 is refusing to release its grip on the body politic, with talk of restrictions not being removed for another four weeks.

What is spooking the experts (and the not-so-expert) is the Indian variant. The variant has been identified in more than 90 percent of cases, with the total number recorded at over 42,000.

It is believed to spread more easily than the so-called Kent variant, and is said to be more resistant to Covid vaccines, particularly after just one dose and, we are told, may be associated with a greater risk of hospitalisation.

Public Health England also says that cases are doubling between every 4.5 and 11.5 days, depending on the region of England, and that it has about a 60 percent increased risk of household transmission compared with the Kent variant.

Not all is quite as it seems though, as the steep jump in Indian variant reports is partly due to the use of a rapid technique for identifying variants in positive Covid samples. Previously, positive samples used to take five to ten days to identify. The delay is now reduced to 48 hours.

Statistics relating to the use of vaccines are interesting. Since the start of February to 7 June, there have been 33,206 cases of the Indian variant in England. Some 19,573 of the individuals affected were unvaccinated,; 1,785 were fully vaccinated and 7,559 had received one dose. The vaccination status of the remainder was unclear.

As regards hospital admissions, 383 people in England were admitted with the Indian variant, of whom 223 tested positive before turning up at A&E. Some 42 had had two doses of the vaccine, 86 had one dose and 251 were unvaccinated. Of the 42 Covid-associated deaths, 23 were in unvaccinated people, 12 were fully vaccinated and seven had had one dose.

Inevitably, though, information is not complete and there may be some complicating factors which render comparisons with the behaviour of earlier variants more difficult. In May, for instance, it was reported that second vaccine doses could be brought forward in the worst-affected areas. Shortly afterwards, the BMA was calling for the interval between first and second doses to be halved.

In theory, that might reduce the efficacy of the vaccines, and it could be that some of the deaths recorded in the "fully" vaccinated occurred in those who has been given their second doses on a shortened timescale. There is the additional issue, in that some may only have had their last dose recently before presenting with illness, and had not acquired full immunity.

Then, in the hotspot areas, there are high levels of people from the Indian subcontinent, with a significant number resident in large households. Some of these have been host to recent travellers from India, who have been allowed to self-quarantine without supervision, mixing with household contacts.

In the nature of viral transmission, where there are a number of infected contacts, susceptible people may be exposed to such high viral loads that it overwhelms the acquired immunity conferred by the vaccine. Such people may even have been exposed before they were given their final dose, which may have impacted of the performance of the vaccines.

There variables may or may not be significant, but they do not seem to be being discussed. But until we see the behaviour of the Indian variant in a comparable situation, it is difficult to make comparative judgements on the performance of the vaccine and the relevance of the vaccinated deaths.

In an environment where we have little cause to trust in the good faith of our master, much less their competence, we cannot take it for granted that all the uncertainties have been factored in.

On the other hand, there could be real factors here, which are changing the epidemiology of the virus, which could justify delay in lifting the restrictions. But it is important that the government is open about the factors influencing its decision, which has rarely been the case.

Not least, the government needs to be far more candid about the adverse impacts of vaccination, as reports such as these are seen in the press. This is a problem which does not see, to be being addressed honestly – concern about the overall safety of vaccines should not be equated with anti-vax sentiment.

In principle, a vaccination programme is primarily a public health measure, designed to protect the community as a whole. Individual protection is secondary. Inevitably, any programme involves risks, so a judgement is made as to whether the overall risk to the community (from people damaged by the vaccine) is greater or less than the risk of not vaccinating.

The problem here comes in that certain age cohorts have a low risk of illness, and a higher risk of vaccine damage. Taken in isolation, that the risk-benefit ratio for that cohort may militate against vaccination, even though the overall community risk-benefit ratio is still favourable. Therefore, the cohort "at risk" of vaccination is being asked to sacrifice itself "for the greater good", gaining no direct benefit from the programme.

Such considerations are less of an issue when for instance, there is a child vaccination programme, and the targets are all in approximately the same age band. Then, within broad parameters, the risk is the same for everyone being vaccinated. Then, the deal is easily made – everybody within the target cohort takes the same risk, and shares the same benefits.

With the Covid vaccination programme, though, the risks and benefits are being unequally shared. Therefore, it is not reasonable to expect those at most risk to adverse vaccine reactions to accept the risks without having the issues fully explained. And this is certainly case with the programme being expanded to include children.

When it come to the lifting of restrictions, though, the Telegraph is asserting that 21 June will no longer herald a full return to normality, after Johnson "resigned himself to a delay of up to four weeks in lifting the remaining Covid restrictions".

But, with the prevailing uncertainties and the history of the management of this epidemic, gone are the days when automatic compliance can be assured. A number of anti-lockdown demonstrations have already taken place and more reaction can be expected.

More to the point, it is getting to the point where the fragile compact is in danger of being broken. Johnson could be on the verge of presuming too much, in asking the population readily to accept further delays without unimpeachable evidence of need.

As always, though, mushroom management prevails, where we are supposed to fall in with the orders of our masters, without question. Those orders, it seems, are to be finalised after the Cabinet's Covid Operations committee meets on Sunday evening.

If they decide to delay any easements, that decision will be rubber-stamped by the Cabinet on Monday morning and announced by Johnson later that day. That may be the easiest part of it. Making it stick is another matter.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 12/06/2021 link

Brexit: there are perhaps madder things

Friday 11 June 2021  

It's Matt Hancock's good (or bad) luck that his much-awaited select committee appearance has been upstaged by the G7 summit, the Biden-Johnson bilateral and the looming "sausage wars". The failure of Cummings to deliver any documentary evidence to support his accusations against Hancock has also robbed the session of much of its sting.

Nevertheless, there is still much to answer for on Covid, and especially on the care homes issue, where documentary evidence continues to come out of the woodwork, indicating that the NHS and the response system in general, was in disarray. This is a subject to which I must return.

For all that, it seems that a tale of unnecessary Covid deaths is not yet going to damage the government, or even Hancock, although there is time yet. Cummings has promised to deliver more information on the pandemic and his time at Number 10, turning himself into a campaigner for truth, justice and the right to wear non-matching socks.

In the meantime, we have the unusual situation where a Brexit-related story is actually vying with Covid for the front pages as the "sausages war" take on a new life with the potential intervention of Biden, alongside some entertaining, if somewhat unhelpful comments from Macron.

Fresh from being slapped by one of his less than devoted citizens, Macron is supposedly ramping up the pressure on Johnson by insisting that "nothing is negotiable" on the Northern Ireland Protocol. "I think it’s not serious to want to review in July what we finalised in December after years of work", he says. "It's not serious between us and it's not serious toward our people".

To that he adds, "I believe in the strength of treaties, I believe in serious work, nothing is renegotiable, everything is applicable", thereby demonstrating – and not for the first time – his less than sure grip on the subject.

For sure, les grandes lignes of the protocol cannot be changed easily, but everything is renegotiable, for a price – the price paid in political capital. And when it comes to details such as inspection frequencies and sausage bans, both the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA are dynamic agreements. There is provision for ongoing adjustment via the Joint Committee and the Partnership Council, where there is scope for flexibility.

Mind you, if we were to heed the words of, Allister Heath, the all-knowing editor of the Sunday Telegraph, writing on 17 October 2019, there is no need for any flexibility. This great guru opined: "All Eurosceptics should back this deal - this is as good as it gets".

Johnson's deal, he gushed, "passes the smell test: it is a real Brexit, unlike Theresa May's shameful ersatz". It would "allow us to leave the EU, really and genuinely, and govern ourselves like every other independent nation in the world".

In a wave of enthusiasm for the work of the paper's favourite son, Heath added: "It doesn't seek to tie us down, or to keep us entangled permanently into the EU’s legal, political and commercial orbit. It provides for a real rupture for Great Britain, and a hybrid yet democratic deal for the special case that is Northern Ireland, in a way which is far better than a backstop". The deal was:
…more than merely tolerable or acceptable: it is remarkable in the circumstances. It is the best possible Brexit that any PM could realistically deliver in the face of this pro-Remain Parliament, the rigged constitutional stalemate and a scandalously hostile establishment. It is also the only certain way to achieve a real Brexit: another referendum could be calamitous.
And thus this towering giant of a man urged "all Eurosceptics to publicly back Johnson's deal at the earliest possible opportunity". He wrote as "a hard-core Brexiteer who opposed May’s nonsense all the way". This time it's different, he cautioned his beloved readers, "and, in practice, perhaps our last chance".

But how things change. Not two days ago, the very same Allister Heath was writing under the headline "The imperial EU is blind to the folly of its unequal Northern Ireland Brexit treaty", with the sub-heading: "The protocol isn't a just law. It was imposed on the UK by Brussels at the moment of our greatest weakness".

"Why don't the European elites ever learn lessons from history?", Heath demanded, his tone altogether different from those heady days 20 months previously. "It should be obvious", he stormed, "that the Northern Ireland Protocol, signed under duress by the UK, cannot last in its present state".

The "hybrid yet democratic deal for the special case that is Northern Ireland", had now morphed into a classic case of an "unequal treaty". This was the kind that China's Qing dynasty had been forced to sign with all of the imperial powers.

And the result was bitterness at a "century of humiliation" that continues to poison international relations to this day, and a sense of resentment which helped to usher in China's deplorable communist-nationalist regime.

This, in Heath's brave new world, the "only questions" are what replaces the protocol, how quickly and whether it is enough to restore the province's fragile balance and save the Good Friday Agreement. The idea, he says, "that the EU will be able to keep the protocol alive by threatening Britain with a trade war merely confirms the scale of Brussels's delusion".

It is at times like this when one wonders whether people such as Heath are even aware that there is such a thing as the internet, where ordinary human beings can call up the past words of the "great and the good" and compare them with current output.

The fate of a certain cricketer might have guided Heath as to the existence of such a thing but, having met the man, I am not sure that such mundane details could have percolated into his consciousness. "Leaders of Men", as we used to call them in less reverent days, are above such things. They are what they say, when they say it. There is no past, and certainly no room for compromise:
Brussels is asking for too much when it threatens sausage wars: no self-respecting sovereign state can accept this, nor, after years of listening to such nonsense, still believe the ridiculous excuse that "unsafe" British chilled meat products might "leak" into the supposedly sacrosanct European single market. So what if they do? Our sanitary regulations remain the same – and even if and when we choose to change them, it still wouldn't matter, or could be dealt with in other, more sensible ways. It is time to call the EU's bluff: its obsession with phytosanitary rules is merely an excuse to seek to detach Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
According to Heath, the UK had no real choice but to sign the protocol. It could either agree to a treaty that essentially handed away parts of Britain's sovereignty over Northern Ireland, or accept a no-deal Brexit that would have created unnecessary economic damage while still not resolving the Irish situation. The EU, says Heath, "wasn't acting rationally: it was set on kamikaze mode, committed to punishing Britain at any cost".

One can quite see the EU's problem here. If this combination of sublime ignorance, arrogance and sheer fantasy is reflected in the UK government's stance, there really is no way forward. Šefcovic might just as well seek out the nearest brick wall he can find, and engage in earnest dialogue with it.

But a Heath-like stance held by government might explain the Commission's otherwise incoherent offer of a "temporary veterinary agreement" as a means of reducing some of the border checks and easing the way for British bangers to enter Northern Ireland.

Given the complexity and the amount of detail that must be addressed, it is hard to see how such an option could be a quick solution or that, given the investment in time and energy needed to negotiate it and set it up, either party could then accept that such an agreement could be "temporary".

Presumably, on the basis that, whatever the EU offers the UK will refuse, it can offer an ostensibly attractive but entirely unrealistic solution in the knowledge that it will never have to implement it. That way, the Commission – with or without Macron – retains the high ground, leaving Johnson to argue the toss with Biden.

In this mad world, there are perhaps madder things. But with Johnson as prime minister, sanity is at a premium.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 11/06/2021 link

Brexit: "no breakthroughs … no breakdowns"

Thursday 10 June 2021  

After yesterday's unsuccessful meeting of the Joint Committee, in which he and Frost sought to resolve the issues over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, I am beginning to wonder about Maroš Šefcovic.

My immediate cause for concern is a document issued after the meeting, entitled, "Examples of flexibilities identified by the European Commission in an effort to ensure the full implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland".

This obviously reflects Šefcovic's position and, presumably in an attempt to be helpful, he informs us via his three-page document that the Commission has suggested that "the UK continues to follow, even if only temporarily, the EU’s sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) rules, as it does now".

That is fair enough. The Commission is suggesting neither more nor less than it asks of any other trading partner, mirroring the position taken by other importers. Most of them set the rules with which exporters must comply in order to gain access to their markets.

But that doesn't get the UK round the "sausage ban", much less remove the "official controls" which the British government and the DUP find so offensive. Thus, the Commission overserves: "Most checks on Great Britain – Northern Ireland trade would be removed if there was a so-called 'Swiss-style veterinary agreement' in place".

Helpfully, the Commission also tells us that a "New Zealand-style veterinary agreement based on equivalences would not remove these checks". Nor, indeed would it remove the "sausage ban".

However, to suggest a "Swiss-style veterinary agreement" as an alternative is, to say the very least, being a tad disingenuous. For a start, this isn't a "veterinary agreement" in the same sense that the term applies to New Zealand, which has a stand-alone agreement with the EU.

The 1999 Swiss Agreement (modified and amended many times) is in fact a comprehensive agreement on "Trade in Agricultural Products", the original running to 428 pages, of which one part – Annex 11 – deals with "removing technical barriers to trade", on "animal health and zootechnical measures applicable to trade in live animals and animal products".

In its own official listing, the Commission doesn't even call it a "veterinary agreement", and with good cause. It is much, much more than that, effectively amounting to the complete integration of Swiss rules and systems with those of the EU.

Based on the principle of "equivalence", the criteria for recognition tell their own story, requiring an "assessment and acceptance" of:
- the legislation, standards and procedures, as well as the programmes in place to allow control and to ensure domestic and importing countries' requirements are met;
- the documented structure of the competent authority or authorities, their powers, their chain of command, their modus operandi and the resources available to them; and
- the performance of the competent authority in relation to the control programme and level of assurances afforded.
This amounts to an assessment of the "regulatory ecosystem", to which Barnier has made so many references and, with the other provisions in the Annex, and the Agreement generally, amounts to Switzerland having to accept almost complete integration with the Single Market in this sphere, more so than Efta/EEA countries.

Even if this was practically possible for the UK, politically it would not be tenable. Certainly, it is inconceivable – on past form – that the Johnson administration could adopt this solution and it is unlikely that any other Conservative government could accept this degree of integration and live to tell the tale.

This much, I pointed out recently, responding to a piece by Peter Foster of the Financial Times, asserting that the a Swiss-style agreement was simply not an option.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the UK has refused this option, but here the Commission is being doubly disingenuous. It has suggested that this could be a "temporary agreement", which could then be reviewed once the UK concluded new trade deals with other third countries. But the very fact that it would need review itself tells you something about the nature of this agreement – and its lack of flexibility.

However, to suggest that something as complex and extensive as this agreement could be crafted as a temporary measure is, to be blunt, absurd. Even though UK legislation and systems are still largely harmonised with the EU, the UK now lies outside the formal remit of the EU and its agencies. Continued integration would require the crafting of new institutions and systems to manage the agreement, as has been the case with Switzerland.

And yet, the FT's Peter Foster is still banging the Swiss drum. No area is thornier than that of veterinary checks on food or live animals, he writes, but it is also one where clear solutions exist "if politics can align with them".

Acknowledging that Frost has rejected such a deal, Foster nevertheless calls in aid Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium. He says that a temporary fully-aligned deal would solve the vast bulk of the immediate problems with the protocol, while providing space to find a long term workable solution.

Connolly warns that unless a deal were done, business was facing a "moment of reckoning" in October when grace periods expired, piling additional burdens on business. "Business is, frankly, fed up with the game-playing and dramas from both sides", he says. "What we need is certainty".

To an extent, one can sympathise, but Connolly is displaying the naivety which has been characteristic of the trade, throughout the Brexit process. And he is joined by another fantasist, Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation.

Brennan also wants a veterinary deal, complaining that, without one, British businesses servicing the hospitality, school or prison sectors that could not use the supermarkets scheme would still face burdens that would put many off from doing business with Northern Ireland.

But the reality of the matter is that, as the Commission's own chart shows (illustrated), to get everything it wants, the trade will have to secure a Swiss-style agreement. And that simply isn't going to happen.

On the other hand, without that commitment from the British government, the Commission simply cannot to make any meaningful concessions, and must simply maintain its demands that the protocol is properly implemented.

This has Frost complaining that the EU wants to implement the Northern Ireland protocol in an "extremely purist" way, which seems to be emerging as the "line to take", shared by Arlene Foster and other commentators who accuse the EU of putting the GFA at risk.

The bizarre thing is that, despite his "bonkers" outburst yesterday, George Eustice knew full well what the protocol entailed, writing to the NFU in December last year, warning them about the "prohibitions and restrictions" involved in implementing it.

That leaves the EU arguing that it, and it alone, is protecting the GFA, asserting that the UK's refusal to implement the protocol it is the cause of the current problems. That, as we saw, leaves the issues unresolved, with Frost David Frost declaring that there had been "no breakthroughs", but no "breakdowns".

Where we go from here is anybody's guess.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 10/06/2021 link

Brexit: sausage wars

Wednesday 9 June 2021  

Downing Street, we are told, is insisting that there can be no justification for preventing processed chilled meats from the rest of the UK being sold in Northern Irish shops.

And just to demonstrate how far this shambles of a government has declined, Defra Secretary George Eustice declared on yesterday's Radio 4's Today programme that the whole chilled meats issue was "bonkers".

This excuse for a minister then went on to say that, "I suspect that any US administration would be amazed if you were to say, for instance, that a sausage from Texas couldn't be sold to California. They really wouldn’t understand how that could even be contemplated".

Does this man really not know that the United States operates a two-tier regulatory programme? Meat produced under state supervision can only be sold within the stare. Interstate trade requires a Federally-supervised inspection programme and conformity with Federal rules. Produce must carry the Federal mark.

Thus, it is the case that, unless especially authorised by Federal Law, sausages from Texas cannot be sold to California. Eustice should have known this and should not be making such absurd remarks.

But this really does set the scene for today's talks between Frost and Šefcovic. As I wrote yesterday, the protocol seems more likely to founder "on a wave of ignorance, where the British government is floundering around in a haze, without the first idea of what it is doing, or trying the achieve". And here is living proof of that assertion.

Far from being "bonkers" – a description only used by the fundamentally unserious - the issue is really not that hard to understand. When Johnson shepherded his "oven-ready deal" through a newly-elected and compliant parliament, for it to get Royal Assent in January 2020, government and parliament was agreeing that Great Britain would step outside the EU's Single Market, assuming the status of a "third country".

By contrast, Northern Ireland was to remain within the Single Market, subject to the applicable acquis, thus creating a "wet" border between GB and the province.

The net effect of this was that, to all intents and purposes, GB exports to Northern Ireland would be treated in much the same way as exports to EU Member States – with the key difference that the border checks would be carried out by UK officials.

When it comes to the issue of what are technically classed as "minced meat and meat preparations" – which include sausages and sausage meat – Commission Decision 2000/572/EC applies, which prohibits, inter alia the import of such goods unless they have been "deep-frozen at the production plant or plants of origin".

There are sound public health reasons for such tight control over third country produce of this nature: it presents special risks and tends to be more contaminated than carcase meat. Historically, there have been serious incidents related to E. coli 0157, from which the UK has not been immune.

Thus, the restriction is absolute, with no exceptions – even for countries such as New Zealand which have SPS agreements. Decision 2000/572/EC still applies.

Despite this, Frost is calling on the EU to propose "practical solutions", to make the protocol work. He states flatly, that "Further threats of legal action and trade retaliation from the EU won't make life any easier", adding: "What is needed is pragmatism and common sense. And it is ever more urgent".

By "pragmatism", though, he seems to be expecting some form of exemption, which will allow supermarkets to continue selling chilled products in their Northern Ireland stores, as they have been doing during the "grace period" which was unilaterally extended by the UK government to 1 July.

Back to the idiot Eustice again, who says that he has "no idea" why the EU imposed "idiosyncratic" rules on the movement of chilled meat. "I suspect", he says, "it links to some kind of perception that they can't really trust any country other than an EU country to make sausages".

This foolish man clearly does not understand that the EU has very little room for manoeuvre. Under WTO anti-discrimination rules, it cannot apply rules which differ between trading partners and, if it made a special exemption for Northern Ireland, it could find other third country suppliers demanding the same treatment – which would be very hard to resist.

And as for his derogatory comments about "trust", it is not as if the UK was not warned of the consequences of leaving the Single Market, and thus walking away from the "regulatory ecosystem". Barnier made constant references to this.

In this context – rightly or wrongly – the EU lays special store by its integrated system of food safety, applying controls from "farm to fork". Simply to apply the EU's regulation is not enough. Suppliers must be fully paid-up components of the "ecosystem", which can only assured with Member States and the additional EEA members, which answer to the European Food Agency and are part of the public health surveillance system.

Furthermore, this should come as no surprise. This issue was raised in October 2020, when Defra noted that there was "no appropriate certificate of exemption which currently exists in EU law". That had me writing: "It looks very much as if the industry will have to take the hit".

Nor, at the time, was [some of] the industry under any illusion. Gavin Morris, the group veterinary manager for Dunbia, the meat processing company supplied by 30,000 British and Irish farmers, warned that the requirement to send frozen meat would put a "huge question mark" over many existing contracts.

"The view we've gathered", he said at the time, "is that a lot of existing commercial contracts for products and preparations to go to the EU fresh will just stop". He added: "The clients will say 'we don't want it frozen, thanks very much, we’ll source from somewhere else'".

And so it comes to pass that the EU is demanding its pound of flesh – to coin a phrase. But we still have infantile commentary from the likes of the Telegraph.

This paper is actively misinforming its readers by telling them that, "Under EU law, chilled meats cannot be imported by a non-EU country unless there is an animal health and food safety agreement" – something which is just not true.

But, if the Telegraph is taking an infantile view of the proceedings, The Sun is being positively pre-natal, with its headline: "BANGERS BAN BID EU ordered to drop its 'bonkers' sausage ban plan that could spark an EU-UK trade war".

In fact, there is no sense anywhere that the UK "popular" media has got a handle on this issue. Even when they are not trivialising the subject, we have the likes of the Guardian struggling to understand that this is not about border checks, but an absolute prohibition.

At this stage, therefore, we can have no way of knowing where this controversy is going to take us, but it doesn't look promising. Šefcovic could be forgiven for thinking that he was dealing with idiots and, if that is his impression, he is probably not wrong.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 09/06/2021 link

Brexit: coming to a head

Tuesday 8 June 2021  

It seems there is more at stake in this week's meeting between Maroš Šefcovic (pictured) and the recently ennobled David Frost than I indicated in Sunday's piece.

That is according to no less than Maroš Šefcovic himself, who has been writing for the Telegraph, under the somewhat revealing heading: "The EU will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely".

Šefcovic is not messing about, or perhaps he is and wants us to believe that he isn't. Either way, he tells us that, as he travels to London on Tuesday, it is clear that this week will be a defining one for consolidating trust between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Together with Lord Frost, he writes, we will launch the work of the Joint Partnership Council on the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement – beneficial for all our citizens and businesses, while establishing a level playing field and effective governance to enforce it.

Alongside the Joint Committee on the TCA, they will also chair the Joint Committee on the Withdrawal Agreement, and it is that which will address outstanding issues linked to the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

When he arrives, he says he will bring "three clear messages". Firstly, he tells us, he and his colleagues in the EU "have a strong commitment to the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that the peace, stability and prosperity that they have enjoyed over the last 20 years are maintained".

With the propaganda done, he then tells us that the protocol is the best solution to the unique situation of the island of Ireland following Brexit – and specifically to the challenges created by the type of Brexit that the current UK Government chose. The protocol, he says, is the only solution we found to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its parts.

He then makes the point that the agreement on the protocol marks the first time that the EU has entrusted the control of its economic border to an outside partner, a risk that we and our EU member states were willing to take in the interests of protecting stability in Northern Ireland. But, he says, in order to realise the benefits of the protocol, we [the EU and the UK] must make tangible progress on its implementation. That is his second message.

He and the entire EU team, he says, have been working hard to find ways to ensure that the protocol is implemented in a way that both facilitates the everyday life of Northern Ireland's communities and preserves the integrity of the EU's Single Market.

And, although it should hardly need saying, he reminds us that the EU cannot do this alone. It has to be a joint endeavour between the EU and the UK.

Denying Frost's charge that the EU is being inflexible, he claims that the EU "has shown from the very beginning that we are willing to find creative solutions when required". He gives as an example, the continued availability of medicines to Northern Ireland. That, he says, is among those tailor-made flexible solutions, something he personally takes very seriously in this time of pandemic.

Now he wants to see "that same commitment" to the protocol and perseverance with its implementation from the UK Government when we meet in London. Unfortunately, though, in his view, there are "numerous and fundamental gaps in the UK's implementation", even though the protocol entered into force over 17 months ago.

The "important stepping stone" for Šefcovic is "mutually agreed compliance paths, with concrete deadlines and milestones for the UK to fulfil its existing obligations". That would be a credible outcome of the joint committee.

And then comes the iron fist in the blue satin glove with yellow stars. "If this does not happen, and if the UK takes further unilateral action over the coming weeks, the EU will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international law obligations".

That brings Šefcovic to his third message, a view that, at its heart, the protocol represents an opportunity for Northern Ireland. It offers, he says, unparalleled access to two markets, representing more than 500 million consumers with strong purchasing power, and it can provide a powerful incentive to attract investment from overseas.

A touch of rhetoric completes the piece, but it cuts little ice with the Telegraph. Despite his noble intentions, this paper sees in his worlds the threat of a "sausage war". This brings the issues down to the lowest common denominator where Brussels is intent on start a trade war with Britain "if Boris Johnson overrides the Brexit treaty so that Northern Irish shops can keep selling British sausages".

The UK government, as we know, has already unilaterally extended grace periods – on supermarket goods and parcels – earlier this year and we are led to believe that ministers are now considering, as a last resort, another unilateral extension for chilled meats, including sausages and mince.

Although we are also told that this, "would enrage the EU", there appears little hope of agreeing a deal. The UK has rejected dynamic alignment with the EU's SPS rules, for want of which Frost is said to be pushing for a deal based on "equivalence", which the Telegraph equates to "mutual recognition of standards", and then tells us that this "would loosely mirror the agreement the EU has with New Zealand".

This is what passes for information from this newspaper, its writers apparently still unaware that "equivalence" and "mutual recognition" are different things and should not be confused. Furthermore, as I have written so many times, the New Zealand deal is, effectively, a one-off, which could never be on offer to the UK – and even then it would not solve the UK's problems.

The whole argument is academic anyway, as it has been ruled out by the Commission, which also dismisses UK arguments that following the EU rules would tie Britain's hands in trade negotiations with other countries. It has told British negotiators to agree to a temporary dynamic alignment deal instead.

Here, of course, Brussels is right. Taking New Zealand as an example, it manages to conform with the different regulatory requirements of its principal markets, and thus sells to Japanese, Chinese and EU customers. When it ships to Japan, it abides by Japanese rules, when product goes to China, it obeys Chinese rules, and when it exports to the EU, it works to rules approved by the commission.

Difficulties would arise – in a scenario which doesn't affect New Zealand – where the UK simultaneously imports products from different regulatory zones, and exports to the EU. Then, it would find that EU checks would probably be more stringent, to exclude the possibility of non-conforming produce seeping into the Single Market.

The trouble seems to be though that the UK government still hasn't got a grip on what is needed to trade successfully as an external supplier to the EU, especially if it is still talking about "mutual recognition". And it is also having difficulty understanding that a mixed import-export trade presents a different raft of problems, which are not experienced by major exporters such as New Zealand.

The limited grasp of the issues, displayed by Frost, probably reflect the extremely poor standard of advice he is getting internally, but the situation is not improved by the trade, which has frequently been behind the curve. And then there were the trade wonks, in high-octane pontification mode, on issues for which they have little if any practical experience.

For all the rhetoric, therefore, the protocol seems more likely to founder not so much because of the inherent disagreements, but on a wave of ignorance, where the British government is floundering around in a haze, without the first idea of what it is doing, or trying the achieve.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 08/06/2021 link

Immigration: a Kashmiri problem

Monday 7 June 2021  

Recently, we saw a piece in the Mail, featuring a book by Ed Husain, soon to be published in the UK under the title "Among the Mosques: A Journey Across Muslim Britain".

Husain was once an advisor to Blair and with Maajid Nawaz in 2008, founded the think tank Quilliam. This has acquired a somewhat chequered reputation in some quarters, and is still attracting hostile coverage, even though it was wound up in April.

The Mail couches its feature in typically lurid terms, describing how Husain visited mosques across Britain to see the Muslim communities worshiping there, by which means he sought "to investigate integration". He has now "has revealed" how parts of Blackburn are "no-go areas" for white men, while ultra-orthodox parents in Bradford make children live under Taliban-like rules.

Pete has reviewed the Mail piece and adds to it from his own first-hand experience, having been born in Dewsbury and lived his early life in Bradford.

However, while some of Husain's rather generic claims ring true, I am not sure he is a position to offer (or, in fact has offered), any particularly penetrating assessment of the state of play in the Pakistani communities in the Northern towns of England.

But then, Husain's great claim to fame is that he was radicalised in his youth and trained for Jihad by the same people as Omar Khyam, leader of the Bluewater bombers. But, in terms of background, he was born and brought up in the East End of London. His father was born in British India and his mother in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), although she has Saudi Arabian heritage, specifically in the Hejaz region.

This, and periods spent living in Saudi Arabia and Syria, is by no means the best qualification for the task Husain has currently set himself, commenting on the kaleidoscopic communities throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain.

Furthermore, his methodology does not seem particularly inspiring. He researched his book by "turning up unannounced" to the communal Friday prayers at the central mosque in cities across the country, and then chronicled conversations with taxi drivers, business owners, Imams and local white people about the mosques and the surrounding community.

From this, he paints "a worrying picture of divided communities" - with white people in towns across the country admitting there are "no-go areas" where they fear being physically attacked.

That notwithstanding, I would not disagree with his observation that parts of areas like Bolton, Dewsbury and Blackburn are "a different universe". It is certainly true in parts of these and other areas, "A Muslim can spend months with no contact whatsoever with mainstream 'white' Britain".

In [parts of] Bradford, he writes, Muslim parents have banned children from taking part in drama, theatre and dance classes as well as drawing, in echoes of rules implemented by the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Syria. They are "physically in Britain but mentally living elsewhere", he asserts.

Where I disagree with Husain – and most profoundly – is with his determination to group a markedly heterogeneous group under the single, catch-all description of "Muslims", despite Islam as a faith being diverse in its application, and lacking any hierarchical organisation of the type seen in the Roman Catholic and other Christian religions.

Doubtless, from a book-writing perspective, it is far more lucrative to take a pop at "Muslims", effectively couched as a generic threat. That will ensure the attention of the Mail and the likes of the Telegraph, which has also published a feature, this one under the heading: "Multiculturalism is a noble aim that has gone wrong".

In the real world, however, each community (or groups of communities) have their own identities, characteristics, problems and challenges. You can no more generalise about Bangladeshis in the East End of London and the Pakistanis in Bradford that you can about the (largely) Jamaican communities in Brixton and the Somalis in Cardiff.

But, when it comes to places such as Bradford and the surrounding towns such as Batley and Dewsbury, strictly speaking we are not even talking about Pakistanis but Kashmiris. And, for those, about 70 percent originate from one defined and limited area of Miripur.

I first had a stab at writing on this in September 2014 in respect of the Pakistani sexual grooming scandal, when I cited Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, who at least had some appreciation of the problems, referring to "poor men from rural Kashmiri communities, or second- or third-generation Kashmiris or Pakistanis who have developed or inherited an openly violent misogyny".

I wrote again on the subject, a day later, oddly enough also referring to a Mail, this one featuring Labour peer. Lord Ahmed, complaining about the failure of British mosques to exercise credible leadership, sufficient to attract and influence young Moslems, and assist in socialising them.

These men, he averred, needed help with issues such as sex education, teenage pregnancy, drink and drugs – all the things other young people have to cope with. But they were taboo in most mosques. If a British-Pakistani boy tried to talk to an imam about it, he would look at him blankly.

Said Ahmed, many mosques are dangerously cut off from the rest of society, rooted in the ancient world, not the modern one. This approach is reflected by the way imams behave. Many rarely mix with other faiths, they are inward-looking and devote much of their energies to attacking rival sects.

Ironically, Ahmed, himself a Kashmiri who then lived in Rotherham, briefly served a prison sentence in 2009, following a fatal motorway crash, and "retired" from the House of Lords in 2020 before he could be expelled, after being found guilty by the Labour Conduct Committee of sexually exploiting a young woman. Nonetheless, some of his comments suggested that he had a better handle on the situation in Yorkshire than outsider Ed Husain.

Of particular note was the effect of the Biradari code. In the version specific to the Miripur region, this sub-clan kinship ties the UK communities to the home country, which – as a UK government report indicated, is going through a form of revival, and that its effects are most tangible in the area of politics, where younger, British born politicians are as likely as politicians of the older generation to exploit the influence of the baradari as a route and passport for mobilising block votes.

The net effect of this and other influences are manifest in Yorkshire and other communities predominately of Kashmiri origin, to the extent that integration is going backwards. They are less integrated and more isolated than they have ever been.

That they are Muslims is most definitely a factor, but more of a symptom than a cause of local tensions. The real problem, as I wrote in 2014, is that so many of them are dregs: inbred, backward, poorly-educated, bigoted, misogynist, and corrupt. Even amongst cultured Pakistanis, Miripur Kashmiris are regarded as a politically highly disorganised community that is socially, educationally, economically and politically backward.

The extent of the segregation and their impact on local communities can be seen from the sheer scale of the Mosque in the Savile Town area of Dewsbury (pictured). As a family, we used to enjoy visiting the weekly market in the town centre, but no more. It has become one of those "no-go areas", where one senses that our presence is unwelcome.

But it would be wrong to characterise this solely as a Moslem response. Here, in Yorkshire, we have a Kashmiri problem, which generates its own particular style of fanaticism. Thus, Ed Husain seems to have shed very little light on the real issues.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 07/06/2021 link

Brexit: action, but not just yet

Sunday 6 June 2021  

While UK food industries seem to be coming to terms with Brexit-related problems, hopes spring eternal with the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) where, it is acknowledged that food standards are to key to the disruption in Northern Irish trade.

So far, we've seen little progress in resolving the ongoing dispute about the protocol and relations are deteriorating to the point where European leaders are drawing up plans to impose trade sanctions on Britain, accusing Johnson of "taking them for fools" over the negotiations.

Nor, it seems, is the recently ennobled David Frost making any friends in Brussels. Senior EU diplomats claimed that he has "completely failed to engage" with the Commission on implementing the protocol, which is to be discussed this coming week at the first meeting of the UK/EU partnership Council. It seems, after all, that they've got the thing up and running.

Concerned that the UK might seek to dismantle the agreement, one EU diplomatic source has warned that Brussels would be prepared to take unilateral action.

"You are starting to hear member states say that the time has come to show Britain that we're serious", this source tells The Times. He adds that "Johnson signed the protocol and he needs to implement it. If we don't get that clear indication in the coming weeks then we’re looking at imposing retaliatory trade tariffs".

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, is not terribly happy with this, telling the Irish Times that, from an Irish perspective, the last thing we want here is a legal standoff between the two sides or retaliation on the back of non-compliance with international agreements".

This is despite the sense within the EU and EU capitals that the frustration has got to result in the EU perhaps changing the approach", Coveney says, adding: "And instead of constantly trying to offer solutions and flexibility, remind the UK that there are consequences to not implementing agreements that have a basis in international law".

But now, is seems, Coveney is resuscitating an old idea, arguing that Britain could resolve 80 percent of the difficulties being caused by the protocol to food prices and delayed imports if it struck an SPS deal with the EU.

He claims that there is widespread support across business, farming and politics for an SPS agreement, even though Johnson's administration has already ruled out the idea – not least because it could limit the scope of a UK-US trade deal.

Whether this is even on the cards, though, is questionable. Most of the noise on this seems to come from Coveney and there has never been a detailed proposal from the Commission or any suggestion that this is the silver bullet that would solve the impasse.

As SPS agreements, even with countries such as New Zealand, are limited in scope, it is hard to see how this option could solve Northern Ireland's problems, and it could be that Coveney is over-hyping a potential deal, without understanding its limitations and constraints.

More likely, this is a counsel of desperation as the Commission is disturbed by the UK's failure to start building the infrastructure for physical checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, despite assurances from Michael Gove. There is also concern that a promise to give the EU access to UK customs data has not materialised.

Maroš Šefcovic, the EU's negotiator, complains that these are all things in the agreement that Gove pledged the government was working on. "But", he says, "we see no evidence that Frost is following through on them". Šefcovic, therefore, feels: "We are reaching the end of the road".

Nevertheless, there are high hopes for this week's UK/EU partnership council meeting. An Irish government source suggests that there would be "disappointment" if there wasn't some progress. "It cannot just be a stock-taking exercise", he says, although he concedes that there is not going to be the breakthrough people had hoped for.

Meanwhile Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, has been talking to The Sunday Times, informing the paper that he has told Šefcovic and Coveney that Britain had taken its unilateral action (on delaying the implementation of the protocol) because "if we hadn't done that, we would have empty shelves in a couple of weeks. That would have made the protocol completely untenable".

Lewis's view is that, "The protocol as it is currently working is not sustainable". As of 1 July, chilled meats from GB won't be able to move to Northern Ireland. Yet Sainsbury's has stores in Northern Ireland, they have no stores in the Republic, and yet the EU insist on this level of bureaucracy and checks for their products because they might end up in the Republic.

With full implementation of the protocol, Lewis says, 20 percent of all the checks done in the whole of Europe will be GB-NI if we are to implement in the way the EU wants. "That is not sustainable".

Coveney thinks there is an opportunity to make progress at the G7 summit in Britain, which rather puts Johnson on the spot. He, after all, is the man who agreed the protocol in the first place, and his intervention could again set the scene for further developments. But, if there is no progress, Johnson will be seen to have a direct personal responsibility for any failure.

For all that, there is not a great deal of interest in the UK for what is seen as an interminable and ultimately tedious progress. And while Šefcovic denies that the EU had been inflexible in the process, he complains that there has been very little coming back "apart from media commentary around how inflexible and unreasonable the EU are".

This suggests that Johnson's aides – doubtless with the approval of Frost – is carrying out a briefing war, possibly in the hope that the Commission can be induced to make concessions rather than endure the constant refrain of hostile media commentary.

Even now, though, the UK is continuing to play games proposing to phase in new checks, which have already been unilaterally delayed. Under the new plan, they would be phased in in four stages from October, with meat products first in line.

From 1 February, checks would be extended to cover dairy products, garden centre plants, seeds and wine. A third phase would then cover fruit and vegetables and pet food, and phase four would cover other foods such as highly perishable items. But there would be no set timeline for the third and fourth phases, which would be dependent on the success of the first two.

This can barely be tolerable for the Commission, which might explain Coveney's intervention. But since his ideas verge on the unrealistic – and have already been rejected by the EU – it is difficult to see where this is going.

And, in the background, is the prospect of legal action by the Commission. Last week, very much past the deadline set by the Commission, the UK responded to the EU's letter of formal notice, sent back sent in March. Despite the delay, the Commission says it will "assess the contents of the reply before deciding on next steps".

In a pointed statement, a Commission spokesperson said last week, "I would recall that the EU and UK agreed just over a year ago after extensive negotiations, I would add, with prime minister Boris Johnson and David Frost, that the protocol is the best way to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland".

Although the EU is still expecting the UK to uphold its political commitments, this is water off a duck's back for Johnson. The meetings of this week will come and go, with minimal publicity from a media obsessed with summer holidays. For the moment, the EU is still prepared to table "flexible" solutions to some of the problems at next week's meeting. However, it is not seeing any evidence that the UK is willing to compromise. Thus, as the preferred "joint solutions" look ever more remote, there must come a time when the EU decides on unilateral action of its own. The time for that, though, is not just yet.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 06/06/2021 link

Brexit: the only way is down

Saturday 5 June 2021  

I suppose I should be grateful that, over the past few days with my work on the "stabfest", I've only been called racist by three commenters – one of whom is our statutory naysayer who would disagree with me if I wrote that rain was wet.

For a brief period, though, I'm back on safer ground as we look at a recent development on the Brexit front, brought to us courtesy of the Grocer, one which points to a rather predictable outcome of our withdrawal from the Single Market.

The headline gives the clue as to what is happening, telling us: "Food exporters set to permanently cut ties with EU due to Brexit", with the legend that exporters are "increasingly concerned" that the second half of 2021 will see short-term Brexit disruption evolve into the permanent loss of certain EU markets.

Bluntly, this is precisely what I expected as the long-term prospects for continued food exports become evident. Neil Hammill, commercial director at Cambridge Commodities tells the sorry tale, noting that many exporters responded initially to the Brexit challenge by putting "band aids on bullet wounds".

However, says Hammill, many were now weighing up whether to stop exporting the goods which are encountering the worst "frictions" when they arrival at the EU border. Predictably, these are predominantly products of animal origin, but organic foods are also problematical.

For all the determination to make things work, Hammill "senses" that a substantial portion of the export trade is going to end in the "too hard box" What's left, he says, might be a business that's 75 percent of the size.

Alex Matheson, a partner at food and drink distributor Fresh Marketing, takes up the story. When the trade deal landed in December last year, he says, he expected the first few months to be "a bit chaotic" but that the business would find a way to make things work.

Five months down the line though, "some of our routes are becoming completely unworkable". There are occasions, Matheson says, when "hundreds of hours" had been spent trying to work out how to send £2,000 worth of goods.

“It’s not sustainable for us, it’s not sustainable for the customers, and it’s not sustainable for the brands. The only sensible thing for the importer to do is find the products from somewhere else,” Matheson added.

Matheson's business partner, Barney Mauleverer, fills in some more detail. Spain, Portugal and Italy in particular are throwing up "horrific issues", he says. Local officials are enforcing their own interpretations of the rules, different to elsewhere in the EU.

One of the delights is a new requirements on export health certificates for composite products. "Often Spain insists that we need a health certificate, the UK says we don't", Mauleverer adds.

This is something I reported on in March and, contrary to some news stories, new rule coming into force were supposed to have made thing simpler. Spain, though, doesn't seem to have got the memo.

There is, of course, a facility to deal with this built into the TCA, through the partnership council and committees, which can act now that the Agreement has been ratified by the EU. But it says something for the way that the Brexit process has been handled that the committees – which deal with the nuts and bolts of the workings of the Agreement – still don't seem to have been established.

In the ensuing confusion, Fresh Marketing has been forced to ship goods via Belgium for the Spanish market. Food intended for Portugal is being redirected via Malta. Says Mauleverer: "I think these importers are going to give up and turn their attention to lower hanging fruit".

And there, he has hit a very large nail squarely on the head, addressing an issue which has gained scarcely any traction in the UK media. The point is that, with the UK leaving the Single Market, considerable burdens are placed on the importers.

Thus, doesn't matter how much the UK side is prepared to adapt, unless UK firms are prepared to set up subsidiaries in EU Member States to handle imports. Without that, direct imports from the UK will be highly problematical for EU firms, many of which will find it easier to purchase from within the EEA.

This even seems to be dawning on Sandra Sullivan of the Food & Drink Exporters Association. She says that many companies had hoped at the start of the year that new trading rules with the EU would change. "But the fact is this is EU legislation", she says. "It's the rules. That's now sinking in and companies are starting to change their business models".

She points to one major tea brand that has now completely stopped organic exports because "it's just too difficult". Organics, it seems, have been one of the food sectors worst hit by Brexit, with difficulties including re-exporting goods that arrived in the UK from third countries.

That is the extent of the Grocer report, so the wider implications haven't been spelled out. After the initial "muddling through" phase, where companies were seeking to get their stuff through at any price, we are now entering a second phase.

In this, exporting companies, even if they are able to get their products to their EU customers, are asking whether it is profitable for them to do so. And they are finding that for many products, exporting to the EU isn't worth their while.

On the other hand, EU-based customers will be asking themselves whether importing directly from the UK is worth the hassle. Unless they can but from an EU-based subsidiary, many will decide to look elsewhere. And that process will gather momentum over time, possibly taking some years before the full effect is felt.

To deal with the new situation, we are certainly going to see changes in trading patterns. It is already the case that the "groupage" trade is products of animal origin is dead in the water. Only those exporters which can fill a container of truck are going to find trade worthwhile.

But perhaps the big "killer" is going to be the change in legal liability – which probably hasn't dawned on all the traders yet. But, as long as the UK was in the Single Market, its exporters retained the legal liability for products sold anywhere in the EU.

Under the new regime, importers assume that liability so that if, for instance, a UK-produced food causes food poisoning, the importer carries the can – as it will for any regulatory infractions, such as incorrect labelling or non-permitted ingredients.

As and when importers become aware of this – and there are indications that some EU companies are as slow on the uptake as their UK counterparts – we can expect then to exhibit a growing reluctance to continue trading relationships.

Then there are issue such as VAT, which seem to be having a two-way effect, with many EU businesses reluctant to export to the UK, or are setting limits on the values of consignments.

Trade arrangements with the EU, therefore, are very far from settled and, although we are hearing the loudest cries of pain from the food industries, other sectors will be going through similar problems and their own learning curves.

On that basis, it is and always was wrong to draw any long-term conclusions from the last quarter's trade figures. As I have suggested, it may be years before we see the full impact of Brexit. But, if the food industries are any guide, the only way is down.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 05/06/2021 link

Law and order: "a group of men"

Friday 4 June 2021  

I know that I'm very far from alone in wondering why the BBC and much of the rest of the legacy media are obsessed with the prospects of going on foreign holidays. Given that many people have suffered serious economic damage as a result of Covid (to say nothing of Brexit), the focus should surely be on rebuilding the economy. Holidays, and particularly foreign holidays, can wait.

There is also a sense that this obsession is a massive exercise in displacement activity, diverting attention from more important and pressing issues – not least the growing carnage on our streets which has been the focus of our blogposts recently.

I have to say that one of the reasons why Pete and I invested in the new Turbulent Times blog was to enable us to write about such things. For me, after sixteen years largely focused on EU matters (although with a few years of intensive writing about defence), it was time to move on and take a broader view of the world around us, and political developments in the UK.

When it comes to the "stabfest" issue (as I called it yesterday), I am playing catch-up. I have not written on this subject before and what drew me to the subject was the incident in Hyde Park which I saw – and still see – as a turning point.

Some sense of this being a special event comes not from the UK media but from the Washington Post, which actually gave the incident more coverage than many UK newspapers.

This, perhaps, is a good example of how others see us – the outsider noting things with a clarity which we, closer to the action, do not see. That notwithstanding, I enjoyed the newspaper's "gentle dig" at London Mayor. Khan, the paper said,
… has long faced criticism and fluctuating approval ratings over the capital's persistent knife crime epidemic, a threat Donald Trump frequently cited during his tenure as US president, accusing Khan of doing a "terrible job" and saying at a pro-gun rally that stabbings in Britain had turned a London hospital into a "war zone" - although it was unclear which hospital he was referring to.
That said, it is not as if the UK media has not been writing on the subject of knife crime. As I gradually read myself into the subject, I've seen a couple of interesting archive articles from the BBC. One was in late 2017, headed: "On a knife edge: The rise of violence on London's streets". The other was from December 2018, headed: "Is another year of rising knife crime ahead?".

Then we have a general piece from January 2019, which reports: "Violent crime recorded by police rises by 19%". The piece records that fount of all wisdom, Diane Abbott, saying that, "Serious violent crime continues to rise yet the government remains in denial about the effects of its own policies".

In terms of hard data, what we saw were police-recorded figures on violent crime, set alongside information from the NHS, which showed there had been and eight percent increase in the number of offences involving knives or sharp instruments and a 15 percent rise in the number of admissions to hospital in England for assaults involving a sharp instrument.

These data did not just relate to London, and there were other areas of concern when it came to knife crime. For instance, in August 2017, the Guardian was writing of an "epidemic" of knife crime in Birmingham, after a spate of stabbings in the city.

The tenor of that piece seems to typify the general media coverage, where the papers and broadcasters tend to dip into the issue and then forget about it for long periods. Thus, nearly four years down the line, we have today's Guardian headlining: "Teenager stabbing: Birmingham suburb voices alarm at ‘worsening’ violence".

Six people have been arrested over this incident and, as the Mail tells us, the perpetrators were white, retailing this witness account.
They were like a pack of feral animals the way they were swarming around him. Apparently a gang of white lads just jumped him, I don't know how many had knives but it is just terrifying. He was only a child.
It seems we are allowed to know the ethnicity of assailant if they are white, which tends to obscure data which unequivocally point to a growing ethnic element in knife crime. And although there are those who would reject race as a factor, arguing that the level of violent crime is a function of impoverishment, Home Office research does not support this view.

In a report published in March 2020, entitled, "Trends and drivers of homicide", it looks at the influence of ethnicity and country of birth on homicide rates.

Ethnicity data, it seems, are only available from the year ending March 1997, showing that most victims and suspects are White, although though these proportions are falling. In the year ending March 1997, it says, 83 percent of victims and 82 percent of suspects were White. In the year ending March 2018, the figures were 74 percent (victims) and 67 percent (suspects). However, the report tells us:
Rates are disproportionately high for Black victims (4.7 times higher than Whites in the year ending March 2018) and suspects (8.0 times higher). The disproportionality tends to rise in line with overall homicide. From years ending March 2014 to 2018, numbers of Black suspects rose 41 percent. Numbers of White suspects fell. The disproportionality exists at all ages and for both sexes but is largest for young men.
It nevertheless concedes that the homicide rate is affected by deprivation, stating that more than half the White population live in the most affluent half of the country, whereas just 17 percent of the Black population do. Having shown a strong relationship between deprivation and homicide, it concludes that "it seems likely that deprivation explains some of the disparity between Black and White homicide rates".

In terms of detail, the Black-to-White ratio reduces to just under three in the most deprived 50 percent of Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) and reduces further, to under two, in the most deprived decile. However, the report then says, stratifying by deprivation at this level of geography does not remove the disparity completely:
Black homicide victimisation rates in more affluent areas are more than five times higher than White rates. The Asian population is also disproportionately distributed towards deprived areas, but Asian rates of homicide are comparable to the rates for "White" and "Other". These facts arguably suggest other factors are also involved in the Black/White disparity.
One media source ready to offer an explanation is The Sun, which is one of the few national papers which is reporting in detail on the current round of carnage. In one piece, under the heading: "BROKEN BRITAIN", it records: "18 stabbings in a WEEK as knife violence erupts across UK after 'perfect storm' of heat and lockdown lifting".

Britain, the paper says, is experiencing an explosion of violence, "with the recent heat and lifting of lockdown sparking a 'perfect crime storm'". We are then told: "Tempers have boiled over during the past seven days after Brits spent months cooped up in lockdown - resulting in a number of deaths and serious injuries across the country".

Thus, it is us "Brits", under the weight of a few warm days are taking the opportunity afforded by the lifting of restrictions to murder each other. And, contrary to the candour of the Mail, when a still is published from a video showing four Blacks fighting each other with knives and machetes, they are described as "a group of men" (pictured).

In a second analytical piece - written by the same dismal journalist who did a "fake news" piece on an Israeli missile - the word "Black" is not mentioned once.

However, "middle class cocaine users" come under fire for helping to fuel this increasingly violent battle in "Lawless London". This is Cressida Dick, who tells us that growing demand from well-off users for the Class A drug was leading to a surge in violent gang crime.

The Police Federation of England and Wales is not much better, with chairman John Apter saying that people were treating "life as very cheap" after a series of stabbings, shootings and violent fights.

Such is the level of commentary and it thus strikes me that, if the media aren't even prepared to talk openly about the full extent of the problem, we will be seeing more headlines in four years' time, bemoaning the continued increase in knife crime.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 04/06/2021 link

Law and order: stabfest confusion

Thursday 3 June 2021  

As I was collating the material for this piece, up popped this item on my news feed, telling us of a "large police presence" at Victoria station in Manchester, after a male aged 17 was stabbed following a fight on a tram.

There were no further details available at the time of writing but we have enough already to add this to the growing list of knife crimes affecting this benighted country. Whether there is a racial element in this – as in the attackers being non-white British is too early to say, although even to ask seems to be, in the view of some people, racist behaviour.

Yet, while it is fair to say that the ethnicities of criminals and their victims are only some of the factors influencing the nature and frequency of violent crimes, and in some incidents, ethnicity will play a relatively small part, or none at all, in other incidents, it may be the dominant factor.

Whatever the relative contribution, though, it cannot be denied that it is an issue of concern and, in many cases, as relevant as whether the victim is a man or woman, or the age and sex of the attacker. The ethnicity is one other piece of information which goes towards our appreciation – however imperfect – of the nature of crimes we see reported.

As I observed yesterday though, the only time we might get to know whether the accused in a crime report is black (or of other ethnicity) is from photographs or drawings from a court artist. The same goes for details of attackers in crime reports. Such problems are not always so apparent when the perpetrators are obviously white British.

We see this dynamic in a report here of the sad case of the murder of Peninah Kabeba, 42, was found on 27 May stabbed to death at her property on Park Road in Cheam, close to the Surrey border. The police have named the woman, and details of her age and occupation have been published. Pictures of the woman show her to be black – as might be guessed from her name.

With commendable speed, the police have charged her assailant with murder, who is due to appear at the Old Bailey on 13 August. We are told his that he is a man, that he is 56-years-old and that he was Peninah Kabeba's lodger. But we are not told his ethnicity, and we have not been given his name – from which we might possibly guess his status.

There may be good reasons why these details have been withheld, but it does seem rather frequently the case that, where black or Asian assailants are involved in violent crime, the police are reticent to reveal those details.

I may be wrong in this, but it certainly the impression – reinforced by another report of a stabbing, this one in Greenwich.

Police, we are told, say there were reports of men fighting on the Greenwich Peninsula, with one victim found with apparent stab wounds. A crime scene was in place, and London's Air Ambulance had been called. A later report allows us to be told that the victim is a man, and that he is in hospital in a critical condition. But, even though the police must have this detail, his ethnicity is withheld.

The Edgware park stabbing has ten arrested, with no details of ethnicity, as is the case with yet another report of a stabbing. This incident apparently occurred in the Poplar area, some 30 minutes before the Greenwich report.

What is odd about this one is that, when police officers arrived at the scene, they could not find a victim. However, an ice cream operator says he saw one person in his late teens or early twenties get "stabbed three times in the shoulder". Four or five boys had bought ice cream from him and then had started fighting right behind his ice cream van. One had "just pulled out a big knife". We are not allowed to know the ethnicity of either victim or assailants, but once again these details must be known.

To add a further element of variety, we also have a report of a combined stabbing and shooting in Brixton, where the police were called to the scene at 9:37pm by the London Ambulance Service who had treated a man in his 20s for gunshot wounds and stabbing injuries.

A group later threw objects at police called to the scene, riot vans were seen in the area as a number of roads were closed while helicopters searched overhead. Needless to say, despite the location being known as a "black" area, no details of the ethnicity of any of the parties is revealed.

In some respects, it is important to establish ethnicity early in such cases, in order to rule out non-white British assailants, otherwise there is a tendency to assume that every incident involved blacks or Asians – which is very far from the case. In the UK as a whole, white British are responsible for the majority of stabbings.

This, of course, might be expected as the majority of people in this country, by far, identify as white British, amounting to some 80.5 percent of the population.

But the issues identified yesterday did not concern the country as a whole: we were addressing the problem in London. And there, according to the 2011 census, white British are the minority at 44.9 percent.

When I noted yesterday that London had changed, and not for the better, here is evidence of one of those changes. The indigenous British are the minority in their own capital city. Asians account for 18.5 percent of the population, blacks 13.3 and mixed races at five percent. London has the highest proportion of Asians and blacks in the country.

Interestingly, the highest proportion of white British reside in the North East – at 93.6 percent. Blacks account for about one half of one percent, compared with the national average of three percent – not counting the undocumented immigrants.

As to knife crime, there were more than 47,000 police-recorded offences involving a knife or sharp instrument in the 12 months to September 2020. Offences involving knives or sharp instruments have been rising since the year ending March 2014, although in recent years the rate of increase has slowed. There were 248 knife-related deaths in that same period.

London has the highest volume of knife crime, with more than 13,500 offences recorded in the last year. In England and Wales, we are told, 38 percent of knife possession offenders under 25s were non-white in 2017. It was two thirds in London.

Of the victim cohort, recent figures have teenagers accounting for more than 1,000 admissions to hospital in a year, as a result of assaults with a knife or sharp object.

One of England's top trauma surgeons revealed that in one London trust alone, two people a day are admitted to hospital with a stabbing injury, having a devastating effect on families and placing avoidable pressure on NHS staff.

Metropolitan Police data also paint an interesting picture. Classified by "ethnic appearance", in ten months of 2019, Afro-Caribbeans accounted for 20 percent of victims, while white Europeans contributed 34 percent.

When it came to the appearance of those proceeded against, the tables were reversed. Afro-Caribbeans provided 51 percent of the offenders, while white Europeans totalled 27 percent.

Drilling deeper into the figures, though, we see a newspaper report that black Londoners three times are more likely to be murdered than other ethnic groups. But the primary source indicates that most homicides were attributed to a killer of the same ethnicity as their victim.

And a London crime map shows that the largest number of homicides were recorded in Southwark while the lowest occurred in Sutton. Blacks in Sutton comprise just under five percent. In Southwark they make up 24 percent.

Unfortunately, there are no national figures for knife crime in England and Wales for 2020 by ethnicity, so we're flying blind in some respects.

But what we do know is that by far the largest number of "serious offences involving a knife" (46 percent) come in the category "Assault with injury and assault with intent to cause serious harm", while "robbery" comes a close second (42 percent).

If, overall, the statistics are muddled and far from complete, there are nevertheless enough data to show that black-on-black knife crime – as I asserted in my previous piece – is an issue. It would help if the police and media were more candid in their daily reports of the carnage we are experiencing.

And if to make such observations is racist, so be it. But if this issue can't even be discussed without pundits rushing to judgement, we're not going to get very far in our understanding of a complex problem which seems to be set to get worse.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 03/06/2021 link

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