Brexit Update: Bluff, Blame and Contingency

Brexit Update: Bluff, Blame and Contingency

I’ve been pointing out for months to anyone who asked or cared to listen, that it would not be until the European Parliaments first session in March (this coming week) that Theresa May would face the decisive votes on her unloved Brexit deal. And so it has turned out.

While I am writing this update different pundits espouse different views of the likely outcome in the House of Commons. Again, as I have said before, nobody truly knows how this will end and anyone who tells you they do is lying. Im certainly not going to make any predictions most of the time thats a very good way to look very silly very quickly and especially right now.

It is now nearly six weeks since essentially the same deal, consisting of a precise 500+ page Withdrawal Agreement governing the immediate matters of the UKs intended exit and a vague 20-odd page Political Declaration, was voted down at Westminster by a record 230 vote majority. In that time very little has happened to merit writing an update. Theresa May immediately said she would not play for time then proceeded to play for nothing else. When she said her cricket hero was Geoffrey Boycott she gave away more than she imagined simply occupying the crease will do and playing for yourself rather than the team is the style, survival is everything and dont think twice about running out your partner.

Bluff

Meanwhile the game of attempting to scare people at the prospect of a no dealexit has continued in the hope it will be more successful than it was in December or January. Of course the consequences of a no deal exit are entirely scary, as everyone from the National FarmersUnion through BMW to the NHS Confederation have pointed out. Or rather no dealwould be scary if it was anything other than a bluff its only purpose is to scare people into voting for any old bad deal. Those within the Conservative Party who have retained any sense of rationality understand all too well that a party which allowed a no deal exit to happen would almost certainly not be forgiven for doing so.

There also seems to have been some kind of realisation within the Labour leadership that to be seen to support Brexit in any form will cause significant and lasting damage to Labour’s support - not least because of the damage to jobs and livelihoods that any kind of Brexit will cause. The overwhelming evidence that the great majority of Labour supporters, including those in much quoted ‘Leave voting seats in the North’ would prefer the opportunity to think again has also hastened the shift toward through the logic of the policy agreed by last Autumn’s Party Conference.

Blame

So on both sides of the aisle of Westminster the knowledge that ‘no deal’ is a catastrophe and that any realisable deal either takes Britain off of the EU Customs Union and Single Market and inflicts economic damage or maintains a close relationship with both but relinquishes any say over either is now much more widely understood. Fundermentally, this is why there is no such thing as a good Brexit and why the preoccupation of Westminster politicians is in avoiding the blame. The Conservatives want to blame the EU - their default campaign manual position of the last 30 years, Labour wants to blame the Conservatives but the real problem of what sort of future the country faces still remains. The fact staring our politicians in the face is the best deal Britain could possibly have is the one it already has - the big influence of a big country, outside the Eurozone and the Schengen travel area, so with control of monetary and border policy yet with unlimited access to the single market, employment and civil rights protection and the big vote of a big country with big influence. The alternative, should 29th March turn sour, is the same status of Uzbeckistan.

Contingency

This week (11-14 March) the European Parliament will approve a raft of legislation that everyone hopes will never be used. Even though the threat of a ‘no deal’ exit is understood by many as a bluff, the EU nonetheless is preparing for the worst.

The dire consequences of ‘no deal’; planes unable to fly, trains unable to run, lorries stuck in service areas and students thrown out of courses to name but a few, would be consequences of the UK leaving with no deal and thus no transition period under existing EU law. To make sure life, trade, travel, fishing and funding can continue for 2019 at least the Parliament plenary will approve emergency laws that will roll out in the event of ‘no deal’. I was rapporteur on one such set of rules concerning transport to and in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Of course it is to be expected that extreme Brexiteers would use this reality to say, “you see, we told you none of these things would happen” and while some might say letting people see the consequences in their full awfulness would be ‘fair enough’, responsible politicians cannot take such an approach. In any case, the EU must act to minimise the impact on its own citizens and businesses. Nonetheless, the harsh reality of customs checks and the resulting delays at the Channel ports will still hit the UK hard. NHS hospitals in Kent are making provision for clinical staff to stay on site because of anticipate travel disruption.

Extension

The deadlock at Westminster has produced much talk of an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period and/or a delay in the UK’s exit. What happens and why depends on the outcome of the votes at Westminster.

Any extension is a matter for the Member States and unanimity is required. Were Mrs May’s deal to be approved at Westminster then an extension of up to three months would be granted without question to allow ‘technicalities’ to be smoothly dealt with. In no deal is approved, however, the EU27 might justifiably ask why and to what end? It cannot just be to ask the same questions. Here, once again, nobody really knows how this will end - though at least three months is likely to be granted as it is in the EU27’s interests even if the result is another cliff edge at the beginning of July.

Longer extensions produce all sorts of complications. While nobody in the EU27 particularly wants the UK to leave there are many who now believe the process continuing is corrosive for the EU and would wish to get the worst over with - that said the only party threatening to shoot itself in the head if it doesn’t get its own way is the UK Government.

To be continued ...

 

Posted by John Howarth
Pulse Trawling: Complete EU Waters Ban from Mid-2021

Pulse Trawling: Complete EU Waters Ban from Mid-2021

John Howarth, Labour MEP for South East England has welcomed the outcome of negotiations between the European parliament and the EU Council (the member states) which will see the practice known as ‘Pulse Fishing’ completely banned in EU waters from 30 June 2021.

‘Pulse Fishing’ as the name suggests, works by sending electricity through the water, killing the fish and most other marine wildlife in the area which is then trawled by factory-scale vessels. The technique is indiscriminate and banned in fishing grounds over much of the planet.

Welcoming the ban John Howarth MEP said,

“I’m delighted that the clear will of Parliament has been accepted in the negotiations with the Commission and the Council. A ban on pulse fishing has been hard fought for by environmental NGOs and artisanal fishermen and recreational Anglers. The practice is environmentally and commercially damaging but has been allowed to continue on spurious ‘experimental’ grounds and has had heavy investment from large scale fishing interests, particularly in the Netherlands.

“Money talks, so I was pessimistic at the prospect of the ban making it through negotiations, but the big majority we won in Parliament clearly counted. Overall it is a small step forward but it comprehensively demonstrates how the more powerful Parliament has made it possible to win changes against both the Commission and Commercial interests. Sadly, Britain will have no say and no influence but will still be affected by these decisions if we leave the EU with Theresa May’s awful deal.”

Fishermen in Kent had been part of the coalition of industry and non-governmental organisations. Whitstable Fishermen Association, Thanet Fishermen's Association and Queenborough Fishermen's Association all backed the campaign to ban Pulse Fishing as did the Angling Trust, WWF UK and many others.

John added, “The Angling Trust raised this issue with me in early meetings during my terms as MEP along with Sea Bass fishing quotas which I am also pleased to say we were also able to influence for the better. Informed science-based NGOs like WWF-UK and trade associations play an invaluable role in counterbalancing the major commercial interests who seek to influence MEPs”.

In his letter to stakeholder organisation John  set out the process for the decision as follows:

Last January the European Parliament voted to ban pulse fishing as part of a broad-ranging technical report on fishing gear and fishing methods. The new rules are there to protect fish stocks and small-scale fishing communities by banning a practice that is damaging to marine ecology. Following its approval in Parliament, the legislation then went to ‘trilogues’ - the inter-institutional negotiations between the European Parliament, the Council (made up of member states) and the Commission in order for there to be agreement amongst the institutions.

On 13 February the European trilogue agreed to a complete ban on pulse fishing in EU waters as part of the new technical regulations on the conservation of fishery resources and the protection of marine ecosystems. This is a win for the work of the Parliament and recognises the substantial majorities in the House in support of a complete ban.

The practice will be banned from July 2021 onwards, which is slow but member states may choose to implement the ban earlier if they wish. This time frame is slow but allows the part of the industry reliant on the practice to adjust. The Netherlands did manage to negotiate an allowance, so that 5% of its fleet may continue to use pulse fishing, for research and scientific purposes until July 2021 when the full ban will be implemented. This relatively small concession enabled the ban to be agreed.

Posted by John Howarth
Chope – a suitable case for reform

Chope – a suitable case for reform

John writes:

It seems that most people were as horrified as I was at the malign actions of Christopher Chope, the MP for Christchurch which is in Dorset, last Friday in blocking the Private Member’s Bill seeking to tighten the laws against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

I generally avoid the term ‘most people’ as there is an increasing tendency to assume without evidence that the view of ‘most people’ accords with one’s own However, this time I’m pretty sure of my ground. It isn’t often that the comments sections on the web, politicians of all stripes and Her Majesty’s Press are united in their disdain for a political act. It was hard to find a single comment in support of him in the natural homes of Tories of similar views on many other issues.

Only on Thursday, the Twitter account of Chope’s party leader, Prime Minister and former Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May, told us how her Government was committed to stamping out the practice, but on Friday Chope used an arcane Commons process to block the Bill’s progress. Famously Chope also used the same process to block Private Member’s legislation intended to criminalise ‘upskirting’ Although Chope contends that his regular Friday ego trip is nothing to do with the issues at hand, nor to do with politics as such but a general objection to the process of debate for Private Members’ Bills. Even if this were true there are many other ways of continuing to make his point. He could for example have raised a spurious point of order of the sort we all raise at one time or other stating how, though he found the whole process unsatisfactory in this case he would make an exception and not raise an objection. After all, Mr Chope has conveniently been absent silent or quite possibly both when his mates have been promoting Private Members’ Bills and has not been averse to using the procedure itself.

Given these facts it is hard not to conclude that Chope’s actions were, consciously or otherwise, a hateful act of misogyny. His party leader’s silence since has been deafening. As bad, if that’s possible, as the act itself, if how this looks for politics, public life in general and Parliament in particular. Here is a single MP - that is 0.15% of the House of Commons blocking a measure that I dare say would have the support of 80% of the population and even more MPs. Over recent weeks and months we have seen Parliamentary process used and abused to ensure that the will of Parliament cannot prevail against the Government or cannot find expression. We’ve seen the Prime Minister clearly seeking to frustrate and side step Parliament by blatantly running down the clock on Brexit and the instructions of the House to the Government to conduct meaningful votes, to return and present new plans and, twice, to rule out a ‘no deal’ exit entirely ignored.

Aside from the immediate issues at hand, none of this is good for public confidence, but it is also corrosive for Parliament itself. Over the years and under successive governments the UK Parliament became increasingly a rubber stamp for the Government’s will. To some extent, through reforms that removed from the Whips the power over Select Committee Chairs, the independent thinking of the current Speaker and long overdue changes to the House of Lords, Parliament has pushed back somewhat. However the UK backbench MP remains, essentially, voting fodder (by the absurdly outdated practice of walking through doors) without significant influence over legislation or events. Of course there are some individuals who carve out their own niche but the opportunities are limited. This is why Chope’s Friday ego trips are so corrosive. Whatever the political views of the voters they want representatives who turn up, represent people and try at least to make a difference. For these reasons it is time the House of Commons reformed its own processes to achieve three things: removing discredited and outdated procedures such as that abused by Chope, ensuring that all backbenchers have the ability to influence the Parliamentary process and ensuring that Parliament is able more effectively to hold the Government of the day to account.

Ah, I hear some of you saying, what business of an MEP is this? Well, I have criticisms of the institution in which I sit too - different, but just as important. For example at the Brussels plenary session at the end of January we witnessed the ludicrous spectacle of a vote on the issue of ‘transparency’ off the Parliament being held by secret ballot - as our clever little voting machines allow - at the request of the largest group, the centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP). For the record, I voted for the improved transparency proposals - though I obviously cannot prove it. The proposal was, however, passed - the numbers would suggest the EPP voted against though there were clearly some honourable exceptions. This kind of thing doesn’t make politics look good either.

Institutions should evolve with the times. The very idea that a Parliament should work by the rules decided 150 years ago just because it has always been that way is ridiculous. The point of the whole Brexit thing for some is that Parliament in the UK should be sovereign. Well it is. It always was. If the institution is to have the respect and democracy is to have popular confidence then Parliament needs to behave in a way that inspires confidence rather than acting like the relic of the public school tradition.

Posted by John Howarth
Paranoid Android – no iPhone App for EU Citizens in UK

Paranoid Android – no iPhone App for EU Citizens in UK

While huffing and puffing about deals and non deal continues and the government spends money on ludicrous ‘no deal’ preparations that ought to be entirely unnecessary, those most closely caught up in all of this, the 3.5 million or so EU citizens in the UK and the 1.5 million or so UK citizens in the EU, continue to be an afterthought four those in power.

The Home Office, an organisation that has done nothing to shed the ‘disfunctional’ tag that former Labour’s John Reid gave it in 2006, announced months ago that it would make the facility for EU citizens to apply for ‘settled status’ in the UK would be a convenient mobile phone App - a snip at £65 a head. In the event even this government eventually caved at the notion that people who have settled in the UK and paid tax sometimes for twenty years or more should have to pay to apply to continue living their lives here and scrapped the fee. The mobile app, however, is now available for phones running the Android operating system - and only Android. The Home Office advice to EU citizens is online here.

Now at first glance this might seem logical, three out of four phones worldwide run Android - so it is most important to make the App available on Android phones first? Well not really. In Europe Android has a lower share of the market but it is still the leader by some distance with 70%+. However in the UK, where the people who will actually use the App are, the market is different, with 48% of phones running Android while iPhones (iOS) account for 51%*.

However, either way the Home Office thinking is badly deficient. There is no good reason, technical or otherwise, why Apps could not have been made available simultaneously on both operating systems and on the gov.uk website. The only reason for doing it this way it to save a little bit of money, however, the additional cost of such development ought to be marginal.

Meanwhile little expense is spared organising fake traffic jams, putting out tenders for ferry contracts that don’t even require firms to own actual ships or ‘gaming’ plans to put the military on the streets or to scuttle the royals out of London should rioting break out.

It is really not good enough to treat people this way. I, along with other MEPs and MPs, signed a letter to Home Secretary Javid telling him that this is just shoddy. The Government needs to get its act together and start serving people rather than deepening the 'hostile environment' to serve the short-term interests of the Conservative Party. 

 

Posted by John Howarth
Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

The story in this morning’s Guardian/Observer that around one in twenty (5% if you prefer) of British adults doubt the undeniable truth of the Holocaust* is an uncomfortable finding that makes the remembrance of the truth all the more vital.

At least six million Jews and millions more Roma, Poles, Slavs, homosexuals, trade unionists, academics, disabled, people with learning difficulties and others who failed the warped criteria of Hitler and his white supremacist racial ideology were dispossessed, enslaved, experimented upon and murdered by the Nazis in death camps and ditches all over Central and Eastern Europe.

The ‘greatest generation’ and their children were sufficiently close to events to have understood the horrors bearing witness the accounts of their contemporaries who survived, liberated the camps and read the detailed bureaucratic documenting of systematic murder, pseudo-scientific papers and business plans of murder on an industrial scale created by the Nazis themselves. Nobody doubted the reality and few voiced their denial thereby revealing their own Nazi sympathies.

My school, progressive in such matters, found ways of teaching the reality of the Holocaust though not through the formal history curriculum. In later years the UK came to teach the history formally to all children. This approach was strongly backed by Susan Pollack MBE, a survivor of Auchwitz and Bergen-Belsen, now 88 years young and living in London, she still shares her testimony with school children around the UK. Soon, however, there will no survivors to tell first hand of these horrors. Soon we will rely on history of events becoming a distant memory as the hatreds and ideological lies that brought catastrophe to Europe re-surface, emboldened by distance.

Susan Pollack told the European Parliament’s commemoration event on Wednesday last** (above) that the approach of compulsory education was vital to ensuring the understanding of the Holocaust, its origins and consequences and advocated its rolling out across the rest of Europe while Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and former Israeli Labor Party Leader, Isaac Herzog, warned of the recent rise of anti-Semitic activities across Europe. In the keynote address, Timothy Snyder, a History Professor at Yale, set out the parallel conditions in today’s economic and social affairs that reduce humanity to numbers and are but a few steps removed from the business plans of genocide pursued by the Nazis.

There is nothing inevitable in today’s events, there was nothing inevitable in the 1930s. We cannot afford that the Holocaust becomes lost in the mists of time. We cannot allow truth to be forgotten. We cannot afford to allow the truth to be disputed. Today the truth of the Holocaust must be defended and constantly re-told.

* This disturbing finding is part of research carried out by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. It is in line with findings of similar research around Europe. Cynics, or rather in this instance Anti-Semite apologists, would doubtless say that this is simply the Trust justifying its own existence. I prefer to see it as a fact of the research that demonstrates exactly why the educative work of the Trust is essential.

** The Parliament calendar means that Holocaust commemoration takes place in the week in which Holocaust Memorial Day falls - the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Soviet Red Army on 27 January 1945.

Posted by John Howarth
Meet the new plan, the same as the old plan

Meet the new plan, the same as the old plan

It is as if last week never happened. Despite the largest Government in history defeat on anything remotely serious, Theresa May returned to the Commons with essentially the same plan as before.   It is an astounding act of arrogance from a Government already rightly found in contempt of Parliament. Choosing to ignore the House of Commons, Mrs May is now doing exactly what she said last week she would not do - seek to run down the clock toward 29 March.

Since the ‘deal’ Mrs May’s announced in November fell apart within a few hours and it became increasingly clear that the House of Commons wasn’t going to buy it her sole objective has been to waste time. Her objective is to get her own way by denying Parliament the means to find an alternative solution. She hopes that given the choice between catastrophe and anything else MPs will be panicked into choosing the latter. Theresa May is playing chicken with the future of the country, it is up to the House of Commons to make sure she doesn’t get away with it.

In the month wasted between pulling the vote in December to her 230 vote defeat in January the Government spun out stories to hype up the panic. We saw Mr Javid and others making a great fuss about cross channel migration because it suited their agenda. We saw the staggeringly incompetent Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, failing to organise a traffic jam in Kent, we had idiotic nonsense from the Defense Secretary about friable paintball guns at Spanish boats at Gibraltar, we are told the Army is on standby and we heard more stories of medicines running short and discussions on Mumsnet about how to stockpile food. While the consequences of crashing out should be understanded much of this is rubbish designed only to aid Mrs May’s narrative. In the event none of it helped her case.

The trouble here is when the fog clears there are real people in impossible situations. The 4.5 million real people who are EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU face the uncertainty of becoming ‘third country’ national with no deal in place or an inadequate Withdrawal Agreement that sees only limited protections that would unravel over the years to come. With my EPLP colleagues I continue to press the case that @the3million and @BritishinEurope have made in their excellent campaign (above with my Labour MEP colleagues Clare Moody, Jude Kirton-Darling, Seb Dance, Julie Ward, LibDem MEP Catherine Bearder and Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato (out of shot) at the Petiitons Committee last night - 21 Jan 2019). I urged them n to to give up (which I know they won’t) as legal challenges and judgements on the rights of citizens are inevitable following Britain’s exit, should it happen.

The likes of ‘Leave means Leave’ who, despite all the evidence, peddle the fiction that ‘no deal’ would be just fine have mixed motivation. Some, like Jacob Rees-Mogg and his hedge fund chums, genuinely wish for it because they believe they can profit from chaos. Some, like the extremes of UKIP and their far right associates long for the social chaos of no deal to persue their ambitions. Most, however, are bluffing in the hope and expectation that no responsible government could allow the UK to crash out allowing them to spin their betrayal narrative and continue their takeover of the Tory party.

Meanwhile the Brexiteer fantasists have their own tall tales to tell. The pointless Mr Fox admits that only 5 of the 40 projected ‘trade deals’ he talked up could be ready for immediate implementation after a 29 March hard Brexit. The reality is that there are exactly none. Boris Johnson, still stoking the fires of his ambition, tells us that despite all evidence, if the EU is just asked in a louder voice they will come up with a different backstop deal for Ireland (never mind what the Irish think) and Mr Rabb, who didn’t understand the importance of Dover, tells us that if the UK becomes a third country it will “hold all the cards” - spookily like something Mr Gove once said about voting to leave that turned out not to be true. Then, to put a cherry on top of this political Eton Mess, Number 10 spins that Mrs May intends to “rewrite the Good Friday Agreement” - an international agreement lodged with the UN that simply cannot be re-written unilaterally.

Labour has rightly now moved an amendment to rule out ‘no deal’. We will see what the Commons makes of it, but whatever happens Labour has a choice to make between the only two kinds of Brexit on offer:

  • Leave the EU and pull away from the EU structures, either with ‘no deal’ or with some kind of minimal free trade deal outside the Customs Union and the Single Market and accept the economic damage that entails, or
  • Stay close to the EU stuctures, minimise the economic damage, accept the rules and loss of any say over those rules and structures.

There is nothing else. That’s how it is. Unless, of course, we scrap Brexit.

In terms of its own support Labour also has a choice. Here the demographics are very clear indeed. For more than two years Labour has been more concerned with the third of the Labour vote which backed ‘leave’ in the referendum than the two-thirds that voted to remain in the EU. This is partly because of the distribution of that vote toward Labour’s northern seats and the failure to understand that a leave vote in a constituency doesn’t translate to an electoral majority against Labour. 30 months on all the polling evidence suggests that Labour voters have switched from leave to remain in greate proportions than any other segment. This is why, aside from avoiding aiding a catastrophic national act of self harm, it would be a massive mistake for Labour to assist any kind of Brexit.

Posted by John Howarth
Combating late payments, helping small business

Combating late payments, helping small business

This week in Strasbourg I gave a speech in plenary welcoming the European Parliament’s recommendations for strengthening EU rules on commercial transactions. The report was approved providing the basis for further work to strengthen the late payment directive. Combatting late payments in the UK and across the EU is essential if we are to protect small businesses owners and the millions of people who work for them.

How do late payments damage small businesses?

Small businesses often operate with limited resources and narrow margins, meaning that late payments can be crippling. As a former small business owner myself, I know that it isn’t lack of profitability that sends businesses under, it’s lack of cash. A lack of cash leaves small businesses reliant on credit cards or other means of credit to make ends meet, with over a third of small firms running into cash flow difficulties while they wait for their invoices to be paid. These late payments routinely force business owners into a difficult choice, between not taking a salary from their business and having to lay people off. It gets worse; late payments are so commonplace in the UK that they lead to the closure of an estimated 50,000 businesses a year in the UK alone, at a cost to the British economy of £2.5 billion annually. That is the livelihood of 50,000 business owners and many more members of staff destroyed each year because corporations and public bodies fail to pay invoices on time.

In the private sector, supply chain bullying is all too common. A power imbalance between small businesses and their often much larger customers allows these larger customers to leverage their power to make unreasonable demands and requests for discounts in return for prompt payment.

Late payment plagues the public sector too, with the Federation of Small Businesses estimating that nine out of 10 public sector suppliers have been paid late. The failure of the public sector to lead by example was highlighted by the recent collapse of facilities management and construction giant Carillion. Carillion was known as a chronic late payer, yet despite efforts in the UK to link procurement rules with payment performance, it was awarded 420 central and local government contracts worth over £5.7bn. Its collapse exposed 30,000 suppliers and sub-contractors to extreme financial risk.

With Tory spending cuts strangling the public sector on the one hand and uncertainty over Brexit depressing investment into the country on the other, small businesses are facing unprecedented business costs. They could do without the stress, time and money required to chase overdue payments from corporate clients.
It is worth remembering that with the trend to outsourcing and contracting ‘self employment’ and ‘small businesses’ now play the roles of formerly employed Labour. We could debate the cultural niceties here, but when we talk about ‘small businesses’ we are really talking about ordinary working folk much of the time.

It is clear that ending late payment practices would alleviate the burden on small businesses and protect jobs. It would also increase tax revenue by boosting business profits and productivity and slashing the number of small businesses forced to the wall.

What is the EU doing?

People are starting to wake up to the damage late payments can have on small businesses and there have been positive steps taken in recent years. The EU continues to lead the way in this respect, and the adoption of the 2011 Late Payment Directive introduced a number of important changes such as new requirements that business payment terms should never exceed 60 calendar days, unless expressly agreed by both parties and provided that it is not ‘grossly unfair’ to the creditor.
Despite this, poor payment practice continues to affect millions of businesses across Europe. And so this week the European Parliament issued a report into the implementation of the Late Payments Directive. The report makes a number of recommendations that seek to strengthening EU rules on commercial transactions. These include:

  • Linking procurement rules with payment performance. A year on from the disastrous collapse of Carillion, this is exactly the kind of initiative that should be pursued to prevent this kind of corporate disaster from ever happened again.
  • Automatic accrual of interest for the public sector. The public sector should lead by example and should pay on time.
  • Mandatory reporting requirements for larger firms. This is a positive step that has already been taken in the UK and other EU countries should look to replicate this.

It is essential that these recommendations are taken forward to strengthen the EU rules currently in place.

What is the UK doing?

The UK implemented the Late Payment Directive into national law in 2013, adopting the requirement that business payment terms should never exceed 60 calendar days, unless expressly agreed by both parties and provided that it is not ‘grossly unfair’ to the creditor, and setting out that public authorities must pay invoices within 30 days.

The UK also has a voluntary ‘Prompt Payment Code’, under which organisations are invited to sign up to the code in return for which they can publish the PPC logo on their documentation and website and benefit from the reputational boost this brings.
Since 2017, large companies have also been under a statutory duty to publish their payment practices, which includes information on standard payment terms; the average time taken to pay invoices; and the percentage of invoices paid outside of the payment terms. Parliament also created the Small Business Commissioner, to tackle late payments.

Despite these requirements being in place, it is clear that a culture of paying late has become the norm. Large companies continue to employ damaging late payment practices well in excess of the 30 and 60 day requirements, while small businesses feel like they are forced to choose between a bad business relationship with a large supplier or no relationship at all. They often accept punitive payment terms as the price they have to pay for securing a big customer.
It is early days for the Small Business Commissioner, but it is clear that his work is cut out for him. Charged with bringing about a change of culture, his office must be equipped with the necessary powers and the resources to hold large companies to account.

What have I been doing?

I have worked closely with the Federation of Small Businesses in the UK to raise this issue in the European Parliament. In September 2018, I hosted an event that brought together small businesses, business federations, policy experts and MEPs to discuss ways to tackle the late payment culture (pictured at the top of the article and below with Maria Grapini MEP). This week, I gave a speech (above) in plenary welcoming the European Parliament’s recommendations and calling on the European Commission to launch a new public consultation as the next step to strengthening EU rules on commercial transactions. If and when the UK leaves the EU, the EU will continue to be British small businesses’ biggest export market and their biggest source of non-domestic customers, so whatever happens it is and will remain in everyone’s interest that a culture of prompt payment is developed.

 

Posted by John Howarth
Brexit: intimidation of MPs cannot be tolerated

Brexit: intimidation of MPs cannot be tolerated

Attempts to intimidate and threaten MPs and journalists such as those we’ve seen at Westminster in recent weeks cannot be tolerated. They represent a threat to our democracy and as such must be taken seriously and stopped.

Democratic society relies on the rule of law and the acceptance that we settle our differences through debate, the ballot box and votes in our Parliaments, assemblies and council chambers. Our disagreements must be resolved within accepted parameters of openness and free speech. Free speech does not include the right to threaten and abuse.

Politicians always get it in the neck. So we should and it’s vital that constituents are able to express their views robustly. No MP or MEP I know has any problem with that. But what we’ve seen recently with attempts to intimidate MPs physically in the immediate precincts of Parliament goes beyond the acceptable. So does the wholesale abuse, much of it racist or misogynist, that floods the inboxes and feeds of MPs.

Intimidation is part of a far right agenda

I am very clear that much of what is happening now, including the co-ordinated abuse of Anna Soubury MP and the columnist Owen Jones by the far right is intended directly to affect the debate on Brexit. The very clear plan is to crank up the political climate to the point where some politicians buy into the view that should the British electorate be given the opportunity to change its mind on Brexit the result would be social conflict. Instead we are encouraged by some to appease the far right by accepting what they want to inflict on the country, we are to be put off making the argument that the 2016 referendum decision was mistaken and that the outcome promised will not be delivered and cannot be delivered without seriously damaging the future of a great many of the people we represent.

And do you seriously think that if democratic politicians cave in to this kind of action that the far right will stop there? Of course not. So the response plainly and simply must be to ensure the police have the resources to deal with this firmly.

Politicians need to address their own rhetoric

Politicians don’t always help themselves and the onus is on us to moderate our own statements. Some of the abuse directed at the Prime Minister by MPs of here own party during the past months has been well beyond appropriate. If politicians want to cool down the situation then they need to temper their own rhetoric.
The nature of political debate has changed with the influence of social media. Bedroom confined ‘keyboard warriors’ have a direct and instant channel to send vile messages to either their representatives, other political figures, celebrities and even the man or woman on the resident association message board. In my time as a councillor this stuff had just started but even then I was getting cases from people never involved in politics being seriously threatened online.

But sticking to politics for now, things have certainly got worse. Based on analysis of more than one million tweets, the University of Sheffield found that the number of abusive tweets about politicians more than doubled between the General Elections of 2015 and 2017.

These are messages that are not critiquing policy, party or political posturing. These are messages attacking MPs personally. For example, research by Amnesty International found that the Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott received 45% of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the six weeks before the 2017 General Election, many commenting on her race, weight or intellect.  In a speech to the House of Commons, Abbott revealed she gets threats of ‘rape and violence on a daily basis’, both delivered online and to her constituency office in Hackney.

Any intimidation of any representative is unacceptable

Equally having a go at Jacob Rees Mogg while he was out with his children was entirely unacceptable. It goes beyond the tradition of peaceful protest - a right that must also be upheld. I could go on. Most of us have our own stories - we tend not to share them because for the most part you expect it and you don’t let it bother you - but that doesn’t make it right and when it involves your family it moves to another level.
Some say, “oh well, they don’t really mean it - it’s only words”. Oh yeah? It starts with words, but let’s remember where it goes. Jess Phillips MP told the media that she had installed a ‘panic room’ in her constituency office following threats to her and her staff. In 2010 Stephen Timms MP was stabbed at his advice surgery. Luciana Berger MP attended the recent Labour Party conference flanked by police protection after months of anti-Semitic threats. A neo-Nazi plot to kill Rosie Cooper MP was foiled. Jo Cox MP, stabbed to death while her attacker yelled “Britain First” was not so lucky.

Since the incidents with Anna Soubry and Owen Jones, 115 UK MPs have called on the police to improve their response to those abusive protestors outside Parliament. I have written to the five Chief Constables in South East England and the Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council urging them to take the security of elected representatives in their constituency activities seriously and asking for their views on combatting abuse in the online public space. Harriet Harman and Ken Clarke, as Mother and Father of the House have called for a ‘Speaker’s Conference’- a special cross-party inquiry into the abuse and harassment of MPs. Read Harriet’s excellent article from The Times here. The Speaker has also made representations on the matter.

Fund the police properly for the online age

The police have a tough job and under this Conservative Government insufficient resources to do their work. This chronic underfunding must be addressed and as society changes we must be prepared to fund the necessary efforts to ensure that democracy is protected and the public can expect the same standards of behaviour in public spaces online that they have come to expect in the physical world.

The police were slow to act in the first instance but have now agreed to step in. They have promised to deal ‘robustly’ with any instances of criminal harassment of public figures. But let’s be clear; security advice that simply advises ‘take you badge off and make yourself inconspicuous is not enough. In a democratic society parliamentarians must be able to go about their daily business openly, must be able to take positions of principle that may not be popular with some and must be able to speak out on whatever they believe important or matters of principle. There can be no room for moral equivalence that suggests ‘if (s)he says such things then they (s)he has to expect trouble. Blaming the victim is not acceptable. And have you noticed how many of these targeted MPs are women?

Very frequently those handing out the abuse do so behind the cloak of anonymity which became an online thing in the early days of the internet. Time to grow up. Politicians and public figures have to justify their statements - why should they be abused by keyboard warriors afraid to stand up for their views?

Text of John's letter to Chief Constables

To Chief Constables:

Kent Police
Hampshire Constabulary
Surrey Police
Sussex Police
Thames Valley Police

I write on two matters of concern:

  • the recent situation at Westminster where we have seen intimidation and harassment of parliamentarians and journalists in the course of their everyday business, and
  • the related matter of online harassment of individuals, in particular of women.

Attempted intimidation of elected representatives

The scenes that we have witnessed recently go well beyond what is acceptable in peaceful and democratic political protest. These actions are aimed at influencing the political process through intimidation and threats, thus curtailing free speech and limiting the democratic process. These tactics have been particularly virulent when directed at women - something I do not regard as a co-incidence.

The policing of the parliamentary Estate and the immediate surroundings of Westminster and Whitehall are a matter for the Metropolitan Police and I know representations are being made by The Speaker among others (see www.harrietharman.org). However, we have seen in recent years other politically motivated attacks on elected representatives and widespread attempts at intimidation online but also against the local offices of MPs, their homes and in the public space. I am also aware of serious threats made since the turn of the year against UK MPs. lt is easy to present these actions as the isolated activities of 'keyboard warriors' and 'unbalanced' individuals. However, the murder of an MP in her constituency and the stabbing of an MP at his constituency surgery should remind us how far these matters can go. In addition we as a society have failed to understand that the spaces of social media are, in fact, public spaces and on-line actions should be viewed in that context.

Simply advising MPs to 'take precautions' won't do. Over my lifetime the police have acted effectively to ensure that public order is maintained and the norms of democratic society in the UK are upheld. Ensuring that elected representatives of whatever political stripes can go about their daily business unhindered must be defended and, while I understand police resources are limited, I would urge you to ensure that intimidation and harassment will not be tolerated and seen not to be tolerated, otherwise the rule of law is seen to be threatened.

On-line harassment

Online intimidation is not restricted to fields of public affairs. lndividuals in many walks of life have come under threat, people with no public role nor any desire for one face intimidation and abuse that would not be acceptable in any physical space. While I have no firm statistics, as with MPs, it seems a disproportionate level of abuse is targeted at women.

Politicians and schools have a role to play, however, I am interested in how you see this new challenge. I am interested in your view as what reforms may be needed to ensure that the police are able to act effectively in new and challenging situations. Complimentary to any domestic reforms the European institutions are likely to consider this further in the future and so I want while my mandate exists to make representations on this matter

I am especially interested in how you see the culture of online anonymity. l, and you, as public servants are expected to justify our comments and actions, yet individuals can harass others behind a cloak of anonymity in the online world - something that would be intolerable in the physical world. Online spaces are public spaces and maintaining public order has always been a matter of police concern.

Thank you for reading this letter. I await your comments with interest.

John Howarth MEP

Posted by John Howarth
What’s going to happen with Brexit?

What’s going to happen with Brexit?

2018 is almost done, the Parliaments have adjourned for the holidays and fewer than 100 days are left before the scheduled date for the UK’s departure from the European Union. At this time of the year I am normally asked what I’m doing over the holidays but this year the first question is “what’s going to happen with Brexit?”.

As if I knew. It’s nice people think I might, but I really don’t. The fact is I don’t think anyone knows - that is anyone at all, including Mrs May, Monsieur Barnier, Frau Merkel and Santa Clause. Far from the possibilities narrowing they would seem to have widened since Mrs May’s short-lived Withdrawal Agreement was announced.

What we all know is that the politics of the UK are in a dire state and Parliament at Westminster is deadlocked. There is no majority for Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying political declaration that consigns the UK to walking the Brexit plank blindfold. There is no majority for leaving with ‘no deal’ either but on neither question was the Commons allowed to express its clear view.

Less clearly, there is probably not yet a majority for any single way of resolving this impasse. The only way a majority may emerge is once the Commons is able to express a view on what is on the table. Mrs May’s game in this is to waste time. In this the holiday has been her friend. Her game seems now to take the issue to the wire hoping the fear of ‘no deal’ will bring those opposing the agreement to accept what she terms ‘the inevitable’ even though it is a very bad deal indeed. This is a dangerous game and not the strategy of a rational administration.

I have never accepted that anything is inevitable in politics and this certainly isn’t. Labour MPs, however, will need to hold their nerve and find a way to ensure that ‘no deal’ is not an available option.

Labour’s position of seeking a General Election relies, of course, on a motion of no confidence in the Government being called and won by the opposition. Needless to say, the usefulness of a General Election in this situation is dependent on it being won by Labour rather than it strengthening the Government. Either could happen, neither is certain. While the General Election route is hard both to achieve and to predict, one certainty is that a General Election, given the current timeframe, would require an extension of the Article 50 process or the withdrawal of Article 50 by the UK. If only I had a fiver for every time in the past two years some smart Alec has told me that neither of these things were possible! Fortunately, thanks to the brilliant work of my EPLP colleagues, Catherine Stilher MEP, David Martin MEP and their co-litigators in the Scottish courts, we now know for certain Brexit can be stopped.

As I see it, and as many of those whose political noses I trust see it, the electorate very much want Brexit to be stopped - or rather they want Brexit to stop. Whether they voted ‘leave’ or remain, they are fed up with hearing about it. This is the truth behind the ‘they just want us to get on with it’ mantra of Mrs May and her loyalists.

Unfortunately, that is not what will happen if the UK crashes out with no deal, leaves with Mrs May’s deal and goes into ‘transition’ or concocts some last minute Norway style get out. In any of those circumstance our political discourse will continue to be dominated by the relationship between the UK and the EU for the foreseeable future. This is how it goes: first off, the ‘transition’ is scheduled for 21 months. The UK then negotiates its future position directly with the EU Commission. Trouble is the current Commission goes out of business in May and the new Commission, with summer holidays and everything, is unlikely to be approved before mid-October. There goes a third of the ‘transition’ before negotiations can get moving, then it takes time for positions to be set out and understood, etc so in practice there is 12 months at best to cover everything that is necessary to define a future relationship. Some of it is relatively simple, some rather complex, certainly a priority for the UK but for the EU, not so much. The only logical conclusion is that the transition simply isn’t long enough to avoid another ‘cliff edge’ at the end of 2020. How long the UK is in ‘transition’ with no seat at the table and no representation remains anybody’s guess but whatever it is ‘Brexit’ and what it will mean will continue to rumble on for years to come. Sorry folks, but there is no way this sorry tale ends with an ‘exit’ of any sort on 29 March.

Which leaves the other possibility of a vote on the outcome on offer. A number of arguments are made against another referendum. Some say it would be an affront to ‘democracy’. I find it hard to see how giving people the opportunity to change their mind or confirm their choice in which everyone, hopefully including those disenfranchised last time round, has a vote can negate democracy. This is nonsense, but it is the ONLY argument the Brexiteers who got us into this mess have left and a pretty pathetic one at that. Others say another vote would be divisive. I can’t argue that it would not be but I’m afraid anyone who cares to look will see how desperately divided we are as a country and I fail to see how it could get any worse. Others still talk of civil disorder - the threat of the far right. For me the problem has sprung precisely from a failure to confront the far right and in trimming and triangulating around their poisonous agenda. We cannot let such threats stand or we are on a very slippery slope indeed. Finally, there are those who don’t want another vote because it could produce the same result. Well, I wouldn’t want that, of course, but if it did at least it would resolve a situation where we currently have a result the legitimacy of which will never stand for many of the 15m people whose voices have been studiously ignored - a funny way to ‘bring the nation together’. Others suggest some kind of vote without 'remain' - membership on the current deal i.e. better terms that are available to any other EU member - on the ballot. If you really want to divide the nation that’s how to do it. To deny the option to change one’s mind is certainly an odd view of democracy and has been to tool of dictatorships for the past century. There are, indeed, risks in another vote - but on what the people started they should be allowed the final word.

So, I just don’t know how it will all end. What I do know is before ‘the nation can brought together’  in any satisfactory way questions buried under the Brexit landslide must be addressed; how we bring about fair shares in a fair society; how the UK relates to the rest of the world; how the rights of citizens are guaranteed; an honest migration narrative; the nature of work in the modern world; and the unfinished business that is the nature of the United Kingdom’s own union.

Happy holidays.

Posted by John Howarth
Please help out your local foodbank this Christmas

Please help out your local foodbank this Christmas

Why are people using foodbanks?

Food bank use peaks in December. Despite Theresa May and Phillip Hammond’s pronouncement that “austerity is over” foodbank use continues to rise. To help your local foodbank this Christmas click here to check out a foodbank near you.

Figures released by the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank service, reveal an especially bleak picture. Between April and September 2018, the Trust provided 658,048 emergency food supplies and food parcels - an increase of 13% compared to same period last year.

How on earth have we got to this point? The Tories would have you believe that the reasons people head to foodbanks are ‘complex’. But I’ve got a simpler explanation:

Short answer - the Tories.

Long answer - read on.

Universal Discredit - the problems with the system

The rollout of the Universal Credit benefit system is in its final phase, and by the end of this year, Universal Credit will be fully implemented.

The idea of Universal Credit, rolling up the different benefit streams into a single payment, seems like common sense but in practice this is an inherently flawed system. The problems with Universal Credit have never been more starkly illustrated than by the recent UN report on poverty in the UK:

Delays in payment. The waiting times are excruciating, the stated wait being five weeks, but in practice, the process will take 12 weeks. A long time when you are skint.

Sanctions. That is stopping peoples’ money. One in eight sanctions are for a period over six months, and experts predict that some sanctions will soon stretch into years. Despite these measures that tip applicants into the abyss of destitution, there is no DWP assessment for the effectiveness of sanctions. They seem really about fear.

Benefit ‘advance’. Even as recently as Wednesday’s (5 December 2018) PMQs, Mrs May claimed that no claimant would have to wait for money ‘if they need it’, and 100% of claimants could get an advance. What she neglects to mention is that these advances are a loan and must be repaid out of subsequent Universal Credit payments which are later docked. This causes no end of problems for people who simply cannot afford to repay pushing some further and further into debt and arrears.

Universal discredit - the application process

Universal Credit is the first major government service that is ‘digital by default’. This means that the main interface for access to universal credit payments is via an online application portal. Trouble is, 21% of the UK population do not have the five basic digital skills and 16% of the population are not able to fill out an online application form. It’s not hard to work out that people with poor computer literacy skills are likely to be those with low incomes who need to apply for benefits. According to the DWP’s own survey from June 2018, only 54% of claimants were able to apply online without assistance.  Only one third of UC claimants could verify their identity online, which is a necessary step for the application to proceed. Of course people could go to their local libraries for help but local services like libraries have been significantly squeezed. Government funding for libraries has been cut by half under the Tories so between 2010-2016 more than 340 libraries were closed with 8,000 library jobs lost. Now local libraries simply do not have the capacity to help with applications but the applicants keep coming as they have little choice. 

What are the Government doing about this?

Seemingly nothing. A common theme in ministerial responses is absolute denial of the desperation felt by some people. The findings of the UN Report on Poverty have been completely ignored by Mrs May, who has stated she doesn’t acknowledge the findings. To her the rollout of Universal Credit has been, by and large, a success, and everything is proceeding as planned. In PMQs (5/12/2018), Mrs May refused to acknowledge the severity of the problem.

But the report is damning. One fifth of the UK’s population live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line. 1.5 million people are termed ‘destitute’, meaning that they are not able to afford even the most basic essentials.

And yet they ignore it, bar the odd staged photo of them looking idiotically happy in a foodbank with copy-pasted caption.

Brexit has made things even worse

The fall in the value of the pound since the referendum in 2016 has already increased the cost of living for people in poverty by £400 a year. The Government’s own studies have shown that if the UK goes ahead and leaves the EU the UK economy will be leading to consequences for inflation, real wages and prices. The comments by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation were stark - if the Government does not increase benefits to account for inflation after Brexit, nearly one million more people could fall into poverty.

What can I do?

South East England is the 23rd most wealthy region in the European Union. However there are still more than 100 food banks operating from nearly 250 distribution locations in the constituency.

This Christmas, take a look here to see the local foodbanks in your area. If you can afford to please talk along something. Foodbanks also take money – it helps a lot because they can fill gaps and the larger food banks have considerably buying power so you money can go further in helping people who need it.

Thanks for reading and have a good holiday.

Posted by John Howarth