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
Labour MPs must vote down this Tory Brexit

Labour MPs must vote down this Tory Brexit

Labour MPs at Westminster face a stark choice. The Agreement that has been struck at long last between the UK and the EU27 will come before the House of Commons in the near future and the decision that you take will affect the UK and Labour voters for many years to come.

The agreement that you will be presented with will comprehensively fail to meet the 6 tests that Labour has set out by which the Party’s view will be measured.

Some of the reporting of the deal has suggested provides access to the Customs Union. It does not. It only provides for the status quo during the ‘so called’ transition period and a temporary arrangement thereafter should the Conservative government fail in their objective to negotiate a future trading arrangement. Their objective, as Mrs May has made clear, is to take the UK out of customs union.

The proposed agreement does not at all match what was promised to the British electorate by the Brexiteers. It provides:

  • No extra money for the NHS
  • No improvements in the UK’s trade arrangements
  • No control over EU rules and no seat at the table for the UK

In addition the agreement:

  • Damages UK jobs, manufacturing and services - so the major Unions are opposed.
  • As all the studies show, will hit UK tax revenues and lead to a further pressure on public services
  • As the governments’ own studies show it will hit incomes - the least well off will come off worst
  • Fails to protect UK Citizens in the EU27 and EU Citizens in the UK

In short, the agreement is NOT what people voted for.

We were promised “the exact same benefits we enjoy as members of the EU” - this may have been a rash promise by the Brexiteers, but it was a promise nonetheless. The agreement that is on offer is massively worse - in terms of jobs, trade and individual rights than the position we currently enjoy.

The Government has sought to present this agreement as the only alternative to ‘no deal’. It is not. Not only is there is large majority in the Commons opposed to ‘no deal’ but as Mrs May made clear herself there is the option of “no Brexit”. The not exactly subtle campaign over the last couple of months has been to build support for this terrible deal to avoid the ‘no deal’ for which Parliament will not vote.

Others have suggested that Labour would be unable to re-negotiate a different deal, or that the EU27 would not allow further negotiations. Both assertions are nonsense. First of all a Labour negotiating team would not impose the ludicrous ‘red lines’ of Mrs May’s government that (as we warned) proved insurmountable barriers to the negotiations. Labour would not waste months and months failing to put forward a negotiating position. Labour would seek a customs arrangement that, while not as good as what we have, would protect many jobs longer term as well as many of our existing trade arrangements. Labour would be able to agree arrangements the provided for real continued worker protections and would take seriously the future protection of UK citizens in the EU27.

Of course Labour could negotiate a better agreement - in fact it is hard to seek how we could fail to. As for whether the EU27 would be prepared to negotiate further, it is evidently clear that they would - as they have whenever a change of government in a member state has required it or when circumstances have dictated. Of course they do not want to prolong negotiations that simply seek the same position, but when changes of Government take place in member states they are always given the opportunity to renew discussions. The past behaviour of the EU is more of a guide to what would happen should the potential for re-negotiation arise - for example in the case of the Constitutional Treaty and a number of other situations. What is clear is this Government cant get a better deal because of their self-imposed 'red lines'.

Finally, I believe it was quite right that the UK government commenced negotiations with the EU27 following the advisory referendum. It is a perfectly reasonable for the UK Parliament, which cannot be bound by its predecessors, to take a view on the outcome of those negotiations and take whatever decision it wishes in the best interests of the country - which could include returning the issue to the people. That is entirely consistent with ‘respecting the outcome’ of the 2016 vote. The assertion of the Brexiteers that to return to the public is somehow undemocratic is simply a clumsy attempt to bully, democracy necessarily involves the ability for the public to change its mind.

Posted by John Howarth
Digitising Construction Machinery

Digitising Construction Machinery

On 21 November John spoke to the European Forum for Manufacturing in a dinner debate at the European Parliament. The forum brings together policy thinkers, industry experts and legislators to explore challenges and opportunities facing the manufacturing sector. The debate, entitled "Digitising Construction Machinery - the role of research funding and regulation", took place in the context of the continued debate over the use and misuse of personal data by digital corporations, the data privacy regulation and the implementation GDPR.

This is John's policy paper, republished from the EFM event papers and website, accompanying the talk:

John HOWARTH MEP, (S&D, UK), Regional Development Committee

The E-Privacy Regulation: a potential obstacle to digital machines 

Events in recent years and months have raised concern among consumers on the security and priviacy or personal data. To those developing application that depend upon the availability of and use of mass consumer data this is a double edged dilemma. Without a data privacy framework in which consumers are confident both the quality and quantity of data available to innovators declines. Thus consumer confidence in the security and privacy of their data is paramount.

This is the context for any debate on the reasonable limits of data use. The major IT companies have long since understood that when consumers lose confidence in a service dealing with their data, they lose confidence in the service as a whole. In the past 12 months it has become a priority in this parliament. The e-Privacy Regulation, and with it the GDPR which has just entered into force, are political necessities to protect citizens and allow them to make informed decisions about the use of their data.

However, by expanding the scope of privacy legislation beyond the remit of traditional telecommunications companies, we run the risk of jeopardising innovation in sectors which require mass data, but not necessarily personal data, to produce intelligent solutions. The challenge for EU legislators is to find a balance.

e-Privacy State of Play

The Commission proposal was published in January 2017. It aimed to update the scope of existing legislation to include new forms of electronic communications, as well as streamlining legislation with the updated GDPR. New forms of electronic communications include Machine-to-Machine communications (M2M communications), becoming increasingly prevalent in the manufacturing sector through developments in AI. A manufacturer employing digital machines which communicate with each other may have to comply with the proposed regulation. 

The European Parliament position has sought to mitigate the spill-over effects of including M2M communications. Recital 12, governing M2M communications, highlights: “the transmission of machine-to-machine communications involves the conveyance of signals over a network and, hence, usually constitutes an electronic communications service.” This supports the Commission’s assertion that the proposed regulation cannot offer comprehensive data protection to users if it does not cover M2M communications at all.

However, the Parliament position goes on to clarify what constitutes an electronic communication for the purposes of the regulation, stating: “... it should not however apply to machine-to-machine communications that have no impact on either privacy or the confidentiality of communications such as transmission between network elements”.

The Council is still to adopt its general approach and has discussed at length the issue of digital machines. The most recent compromise text reflects the Parliament position in reiterating that M2M communications normally constitute an electronic communication. It remains to be seen whether the Council will also advocate an exemption for those M2M communications which do not process data which has an impact on user privacy.

The use of digital machines in manufacturing

The use of digital machines and the Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the nature of production. In the future manufacturing processes could include interaction between machines and computers dealing with CAD, big data analysis, and manufacturing processes such as 3D printing and laser cutting. However, in theory such processes could undermine individual privacy, as data is passed from one machine to another during manufacturing processes.

In this context it is unavoidable that machine-to-machine communications are subject to rules regarding privacy of communications. However, a blanket requirement for user consent in ALL machine-to-machine communications would severely limit the ability of manufacturers to realise productivity gains from the use of digital machines and artificial intelligence.

The challenge for legislators

The challenge for us, as Members of the European Parliament, is to find a delicate balance between reassuring citizens of their high levels of personal privacy, whilst ensuring that communications which have no real impact on privacy are not subject to counterproductive rules and consent processes.

In this respect the work of the European Parliament would seem to heading in the right direction. It would not be correct simply to exclude M2M communications from the scope. If our personal data was unprotected as soon as it is passed from one device to another, citizens would lose confidence in privacy legislation and service providers. It is therefore in everyone’s interest that data is protected throughout all processes.

The question is rather that of scope, and what do we consider to be sensitive communications which need protecting? More work needs to be done to refine this definition, but the solution of including M2M communications, with a clear exemption for those communications which are essential to the functioning of digital machines but have little to no impact on data privacy.

Another solution explored in the Council would be to differentiate between different data processes in M2M communications, with only the transmission of data considered to be in the scope of the e-Privacy regulation.

Conclusions

The legislative process on the e-Privacy file has not yet concluded, and it is not clear at this point what will the final result look like. What is clear is that any option put forward must satisfy three conditions. The legislation must:

  • Increase consumer confidence in the privacy of data as Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things become more prevalent in our daily lives
  • Anticipate technological developments and avoid unnecessary spill-over to domains with little relevance to the protection of privacy
  • Provide business with legal certainty as to which M2M communications are within the scope and therefore subject to privacy rules.

If the Council adopts an ambitious text the overall result will be an effective protection of user privacy, and need not be an obstacle to innovation and digital machines.

Posted by John Howarth
Preventing abuse in the aid sector

Preventing abuse in the aid sector

John writes:

On the 19th of November I hosted a policy roundtable in the European Parliament on safeguarding in the aid sector. I want to be very clear. Largely, organisations across the aid sector do a marvellous job. Without the people who work in these organisations, dire situations would be hopeless. Those prepared to work in chaotic environments, often moving across continents and away from their family and friends in difficult circumstances are truly remarkable people. However, in February this year, revelations about some Oxfam workers’ behaviour in Haiti hit the headlines. More allegations followed, including allegations concerning Save the Children.

Why I got involved

I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the Aid sector. Like most people, I witnessed the dripping tap of #AidToo revelations for the first time in February 2018. I was appalled by the incidents of exploitative and in some cases criminal activity by individuals in positions of trust, the apparent failings of the charitable regulator, and the willingness of the big charities and not-for-profits to apparently ignore abusive behaviour and definitely to put their corporate reputation ahead of the welfare of vulnerable individuals.  

A constituent who had been working in Oxfam’s safeguarding department subsequently approached me. She had the courage to go public with her experiences of the failures of Oxfam’s board and trustees to take incidences of sexual harassment and abuse seriously. This includes both dealing with incidences of abuse towards beneficiaries of aid and those that occurred to Oxfam employees. 

The issue was bring progressed by others in the UK in public life and the media. As an MEP covering Oxfordshire and the headquarters of Oxfam, I felt it was appropriate to take up the issue. The EU is the world’s leading donor of development assistance. Working with a colleague in the Parliament I was able to give the issue a profile in Brussels. Our objectives are to protect the position of development aid programmes and development aid budgets but also to ensure that the EU takes safeguarding seriously. I felt that I had an opportunity to help to facilitate a platform to help reformers influence the conversation around safeguarding. My colleague Marietje Schaake MEP raised the issue in the Parliament through a procedure called an ‘oral question for debate’ that I co-signed. I then organised a heading for experts and survivors of abuse that Marietje co-sponsored.

The hearing at the European Parliament

We were able to gather together some of the leaders in the safeguarding field to address an audience comprised of members and employees of the EU institutions, and members of external bodies, including NGOs. All panellists have been working on safeguarding issues, both before and after the start of the #AidToo revelations in February.

Asmita Naik started the panel, speaking about the historical context of the Oxfam scandal. She pointed out that this was not a new issue in the aid sector and referenced her report, written in conjunction with the UN back in 2002, on food as a tool of sexual exploitation in Western Africa. We were then joined by Lesley Agams, the former country director of Oxfam in Nigeria, who spoke about her personal experiences of sexual violence whilst attending an aid conference. Hannah Clare, the Global Adviser on Protection against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Norwegian Refugee Council, then discussed how best to handle safeguarding issues and reform from a practitioner’s point of view, and then Tricia Young, CEO of Terre d’Hommes, concluded with her experience working on the Bond Child Rights working group.

There was a common thread to all the panel’s contributions. It’s clear that there’s the frameworks in place for effective safeguarding practices- the issue comes in the implementation. Panellists spoke of the unequal power structures within the aid sector, with some charitable boards being dominated by an ‘old boys’ network’, and a reluctance to take complaints seriously and to deal with perpetrators of sexual violence.
The developments stemming from the recent DfID Safeguarding Conference were also critiqued and all panellists were united in their view that the structures are already in place, and what NGOs really need is a cultural shift.

The next steps

The proceedings of the hearing will be submitted to the European Commission and my colleague and co-sponsor will continue the work after my term of office as an MEP is completed. I know there are concerns in the Commission that good safeguarding practices are essential to aid programmes and are keen to listen to stakeholders based across the EU and their views on what effective safeguarding practices look like and their views on what an effective regulator should be.

If you are an interested party and would like to contribute to this dossier, please contact my office and a member of my team will be in touch.

Posted by John Howarth
An investment budget funding S&D priorities post 2020

An investment budget funding S&D priorities post 2020

On 1 January 2021, the day after the UK’s transition out of the European Union is due to end, the EU’s new 7 year budget will come into force. Known as the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF), the seven year budget effectively determines everything that the European Union does through its programmes, policies and subsidies.

One of the half-truths perpetuated by the anti-Europeans on the far right is that “the EU Budget only ever rises”. In real terms this is utter rubbish. The current MFF budget framework from 2014 to 2020 involved a real terms cut in EU funding. The EU institutions (Commission, Parliament, Council, Court etc) were all expected to make 5% reductions in their staffing levels, which they have now achieved, and remain under pressure for further real-terms reductions. Contributions from the member states represent a lower proportion of Gross National Income (GNI) than they did under previous financing regimes (about 1%, while domestic spending programmes account for at least 28% of GNI).  The current MFF was prepared in the aftermath of the 2008 crash (which, let’s not forget, kicked off in the USA’s dodgy mortgage market), the knock on crisis in the Eurozone and the pressure on public finances across Europe. Unfortunately an ‘austerity MFF’ followed.

This time round the Socialist & Democrat Group (S&D) in the Parliament has been very successful in  making the case for bringing austerity budgeting to an end and investing for the future of Europe. At the same time we have been wrestling with the budget gap left by the UK’s planned exit at the end of the current MFF. S&D was able to win a consensus for:

  • Doubling the EU’s Horizon 2020 scientific and medical research programme
  • Trebling the Erasmus+ study funding scheme
  • Doubling the Creative Europe programme
  • A major increase in priority funding for border protection and security
  • Maintaining cohesion investment in Europe’s less developed regions
  • Substantial increases for environment and conservation programmes
  • Requiring a 25% commitment from all programmes for climate change action, rising to 30%
  • A ‘just transition’ fund for moving away from fossil fuels and retraining workers in new green technologies
  • Maintaining the EU’s commitment to international development aid

These commitments are a response to the challenges posed by technology, migration, the modern skills economy. The scale of the challenge is well illustrated by the investment being made elsewhere. In China investment in scientific research in 2016 was €242 billion. In a single year. This makes the €120 billion ambition of Horizon Europe over seven years look modest indeed. Of course Horizon doesn’t represent the totality of research investment in Europe, but it is nonetheless a key programme and the primary arena for collaborative research across Europe. It represents the ambition of Europe to continue to compete on a world stage and it is a means of delivering economies of scale and developing excellence in research.

As for climate action, the urgency of addressing the focus and effectiveness of EU spending is urgent if the continent is to achieve its Paris climate commitments. Within this the establishment of a ‘just transition’ fund will be an important step to achieving a humane transition that equips working people for an alternative future rather than abandoning communities that have built their living on fossil fuel based industry.
S&D have succeeded in winning broad support from the pro-European groups in the Parliament and some beyond to an ambitious programme. Far from being extravagant, it’s the minimum investment Europe needs.

Where does the money come from?

Just as important as the spending side is how the EU gets its funding. Over the years the balance of EU funding has shifted toward funding from the member states based on their Gross National Income rather than through EU ‘own resources’ - the most obvious being customs income the significance of which has declined over time. This has created a tension between national budgets and EU ‘contributions’ that has been toxic to the cohesion of Europe. If the EU is to survive and thrive it needs to resolve this tension.
The opportunities exist to reduce the GNI-based contribution of member states by replacing them with new fair taxation of major digital, financial and trans-national corporations who currently use their cross-border operations to avoid paying their fair share. Additionally, levies on single use plastics and carbon levies can play a part. Relatively small contributions can provide both new funding for EU programmes and reduce the burden on citizens and the EU, rather than member states, is the only body with the clout to bring corporations to book.

S&D has been able to win broad support to these minimal proposals for fair taxation of corporations which in many ways is the biggest practical challenge facing European policy makers and essential to demonstrating to citizens that the political process can offer fairness and force major corporations to contribute to society. It is a strong negotiating position but it remains to be seen what approach the member states will take when their turn to approve the seven year budget comes.

Why does the matter to the UK?

Even though the UK intends to leave the EU at the end of the current MFF the decisions that are taken will matter to the UK in the future. At the very least the decisions of the big neighbour over which the UK will have little or no influence will affect us. For example the level of spending on agriculture will limit, because of fair competition rules, the amount the UK can spend on it own farming industry - at least if we want to continue to export to its largest customers. The scale of EU research programmes and the legislation around them will affect the extent to which UK institutions can engage and continue to lead world-class research. The ‘political declaration’ alongside the Withdrawal Agreement provides for participation even though we will have to pay much more than we do at present for access to the programmes, The extent to which the EU can effectively police its borders will have a knock-on effect on the UK and the overall level of the budget will matter if the UK needs to contribute in return for access to markets.

In these and many other areas and whatever the Brexiteers might say, the way the EU spends its money will continue to affect the UK for many years to come.

Posted by John Howarth