My Column – There’s No Such Thing as Debate in the European Parliament

I feel I’m pretty well-qualified to write about so-called debates in the European Parliament. After all, I’ve spoken in more of them since being elected than any other British MEP and I’m currently 3rd out of the 750 in the Parliament. (Another UKIP stereotype goes out of the window!)

The word ‘debate’, though, is stretching the point a little bit. The whole Parliament is actually only convened for 5 days a month: 4 in Strasbourg and 1 in Brussels. Of the four Strasbourg days, the Monday doesn’t start until 5pm and the Thursday session is usually over by midday. In Brussels, we don’t start until 3pm. When you consider that we often spend 2 hours in a day voting, the Parliament is effectively only ‘sitting’ on average for less than 3 days a month.

Compare that with a real Parliament, our Parliament at Westminster which last year sat for 142 days in the year. There was an outcry: how could MPs ‘only’ turn up to Westminster for 142 days? Now, that’s not to say that members of the European Parliament don’t turn up at other times: there’s Committee work for example. But if we’re effectively allocating just 3 days a month to ‘debate’ important issues, there’s no wonder that strange things start to happen!

Last Monday in Strasbourg, they scheduled eight so-called ‘debates’. I use the term very loosely. The rapporteur (the member of the European Parliament who wrote the report) was allowed to speak for around 4 minutes to present their documents, which are often anything between 20 and 50 pages long. For five minutes, MEPs are allowed to ‘debate’ them: five MEPs are allowed to speak for 60 seconds each, before the Commission has a couple of minutes to wrap up. That’s all the ‘debate’ that’s allowed, and the reports are then scheduled, together with various amendments, for a vote on the Tuesday. On average, roughly 10 of the 750 MEPs (I’m normally one of the ten) turn up to these debates. How could anyone possibly be convinced by such a debate? How could we possibly give the reports proper scrutiny? Fortunately for me, I speed-read. I sometimes wonder whether I’m the only MEP in the chamber who’s actually read all of the reports. And yet, this is supposed to be democracy in action.

Then we have the ‘grandstanding’ debates, as I like to call them. The Commission and Council will present on a particular issue, and it’s advertised as “one round of political group speakers only”. This happens on some high-profile issues. MEPs pack the chamber, whilst each Group leader or other delegated representative gets a chance to speak for between 3 and 5 minutes. Nigel Farage does this job very well; he’s very well-suited to this arena. No-one else gets the chance to speak. It’s not in any meaningful sense a debate; it’s just a platform for 9 short speeches. David Cameron is grilled vigorously once a week at Prime Minister’s Questions in Westminster; no-one faces such a grilling in Brussels or Strasbourg. But if there’s no true scrutiny, then the chamber’s output suffers. Without scrutiny or interaction, it’s not in any meaningful sense a debate.

There are oral explanations of vote. These allow MEPs to spend 60 seconds explaining why they voted a particular way. It’s all after the fact, so no-one’s mind can be changed. Once again, it isn’t debate.

Then there are the ‘vanity’ one-minute speeches. Any MEP can apply for a 60-second speech on ‘matters of political importance’. It’s 60 seconds to talk about whatever you feel like discussing, to promote a cause that you believe in. The Parliament generally takes around 60 of these each month, and they have zero actual meaning. On the other hand, they can tell a special interest group that they ‘raised the issue in Parliament’. Certainly they did raise the issue, but it’s misleading to suggest that it’s going to make the slightest bit of difference. Some of the better MEPs will use their one-minute speeches to relate to matters in their constituency, contact the press, and use them to raise public awareness of an important issue. But again, it’s not really debate in any sense of the word.

Finally, there are a few ‘debates’ which come a little closer to the meaning of the word. After the Commission, Council and other interested parties have spoken, backbench MEPs are given their chance. Timings are allocated proportionally on a group basis. Individual speakers are usually granted between 60 and 120 seconds to speak. They’re always in a rush and there’s never enough speaking time to go around, so it tends to revert back to the committees: if the EU budget is under discussion then I’m likely to get some speaking time as a member of the Budget Committee. In these kinds of debates, there’s the tiniest sliver of Parliamentary scrutiny. An MEP may hold up a blue card, indicating a desire to question a speaker. If the blue card is accepted, then they can ask a 30-second question and get a 30-second response.

The problem is, that this ‘blue card’ system is incredibly limited. It’s the unelected Commission that drafts the laws, but the rules are quite clear: ‘you can’t blue-card the Commission’. 30 seconds isn’t enough to develop a point in itself. But that’s not the worst of it. Often the blue card system itself is suspended, especially when important issues are being debated. When Commission President Juncker addressed the Parliament last Wednesday, we had a ‘debate’ on his ‘State of the Union’ speech and the current refugee crisis. Juncker’s speech was scheduled for 30 minutes; I believe it lasted 90. Then we had the ’round of political group speakers’ above, and the pro-EU groups were allowed to massively overrun their speaking time. Eventually, the ‘debate’ started. They did not allow even one question before suspending blue cards. The Parliament was running late, and debate would make it run even later. With even the tiniest amount of actual debate cancelled on such an issue, I walked out of the chamber in protest.

My North East Labour colleague (or perhaps, opponent?) Jude Kirton-Darling saw the opportunity for a quick bit of mischief making, and tweeted: “Not one UKIP MEP in chamber for debate on #refugeecrisis”. I’d left in protest at the lack of debate, then was criticised for not remaining in the sham-discussion that resulted. At the time when she tweeted, the UKIP MEPs were actually in a voting meeting – but that’s actually beside the point. The problem is, that when considering events in the chamber, my record speaks for itself.

I don’t actually write this to criticise Jude or Paul, the Labour North East MEPs. They work hard in their own way. I might disagree with them on many things, and indeed the nature of the role of a UKIP MEP is different from that of a Labour MEP. My role is to be the voice of opposition, the person who speaks out when the EU proposes something bad, to try to negate the worst excesses of the EU and to report back to my constituents on what’s going on. I’m heavily involved with putting on events like this one, bringing politics back to the people.

As it happens I did actually speak out in the chamber on the refugee crisis – but as I’ve explained above, sadly the system is designed to minimise the chance of actually persuading anyone of anything.

The whole system is designed to make MEPs feel like they’re powerful, whilst leaving us with very little power indeed. Parliamentary staff treat MEPs with cringeworthy levels of deference. Millions are wasted each year on unnecessary luxuries; I refuse to attend the daily free champagne receptions for MEPs in Brussels for example. There are echoes of medieval feudalism in the way that MEPs are treated out there; you either go into it with eyes wide open and see it for what it is (warts and all), or you end up going native – defending the indefensible to the hilt. Sadly, too many MEPs do the latter and fail to spot that the Emperor has no clothes.

How many MEPs, I wonder, have even failed to spot what is staring us in the face on a daily basis: that there is no such thing as debate in the European Parliament?

This column was originally published on my Huffington Post blog and can be viewed here.

My Column – What Should #refugeeswelcome Actually Mean?

Let’s remember, as far back as December 2013 a certain Nigel Farage was one of the first to call for us to take our fair share of Syrian refugees. So let’s have none of the nonsense claims stoking untruths and intolerance about Ukip that we hear from the Left of British politics on a daily basis.

Ukip’s always been in favour of helping those genuinely in need, according to our great British traditions. As Nigel Farage said, “I would like to point out that since the inception of this party Ukip has supported our proud tradition of helping those in need in terms of allowing entry to a sensible number of refugees. The problem has come with opening up our borders unconditionally to the whole of the EU.” That exact phrase – ‘proud tradition of helping those in need’ – was in handy pocket-sized guides to Ukip in 2008 (I know, because I wrote and designed the booklet concerned: over three million were produced).

Nothing could be more quintessentially British than the support we gave to refugees fleeing Hitler’s monstrosities during World War II for example. And ISIS’ butchery of all who dare disagree with them is every bit as callous, albeit on a smaller scale.

But in a modern world, a 21st Century crisis where Britain isn’t the major point of entry, the question is about ‘doing our bit’. Being compassionate mustn’t mean being naive, and we forget the law of unintended consequences at our peril: just look at how our involvement in Iraq turned out, because Blair failed to spot that artificially-enforced Westernisation carries risks. As Don MacLean put it years earlier in his famous song “We had to burn the city because they wouldn’t agree, that things work better with democracy”.

So if we use the hashtag #refugeeswelcome we need to make very clear what exactly we’re talking about. As a right-winger I filter my heartfelt desire to help, with careful consideration of whether it’ll actually work. That’s why the (ostensibly) left-wing Labour government of Tony Blair invaded Iraq, whilst we in Ukip said ‘hang on a minute, have we thought this through first?’. Being on the right is about being prepared to take tough decisions. A plan isn’t automatically right just because it hurts us to put it into practice; political masochism might ease my conscience but I need to ask about the consequences – just as Blair failed to do in Iraq. Take in refugees? Yes – but, and this is the crucial bit, not in the way that many are suggesting, which will simply lead to an even greater crisis.

To answer the question in the title, there’s a lot that we could – and should – do without being counterproductive:

1. We want to help those Syrian refugees displaced in countries like Turkey (1.8million), Lebanon (1.2million) and Jordan (over 600,000). This handy map of the region tells a story (but more on that later). Those who are vulnerable, elderly, women and children, and have no money to pay traffickers, generally remain in those countries. They should be a higher priority for our help than generally young, able-bodied men who pay traffickers to illegally traverse safe country after safe country (and who’s to say that money won’t end up financing terrorism?), risking their lives whilst leaving others behind.

2. We don’t welcome those who cynically use the crisis in Syria for their own ends. Those from Bangladesh and elsewhere who try to claim asylum, attempting to capitalise on the Syrians’ suffering, are making life worse for the Syrians.

3. We don’t welcome the European Union’s power grab, manipulating this crisis to seek to seize power over Britain’s borders through a Common Asylum Policy.

4. We don’t welcome those who seek to profit from the misfortune of others, selling pipe dreams and dangerous journeys through Europe from safe country to safe country. Those cruel mercenaries can be stopped, but only through effective border controls.

5. Public opinion is polarised in the UK because we allowed into the country 636,000 new immigrants in the last year. Roughly 96% were economic migrants. If you want to know why some people seem to lack compassion, it’s because our uncontrolled mass immigration system has enormous social consequences and puts many local people out of work. Stem that flow of mass immigration, and the vast majority of people will recognise the legitimate humanitarian concerns over Syria.

6. ISIS has threatened to use the refugee situation as cover to send terrorists into the UK and elsewhere in Europe. We need to take steps to weed out such people.

7. We need to expect the rich Gulf states to do their bit too. According to Amnesty International, six Gulf countries – Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain – have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees. Most of these are some of the richest countries in the world thanks to oil exports. They can afford to help; they should be helping. This isn’t a European crisis, it’s a global crisis. Frankly, Syria’s (near) neighbours should be pulling their weight.

Get this right, and I want us to take our share of refugees. Not from Europe, but from the places where the humanitarian crisis is greatest: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. I want us to provide humanitarian aid in those countries.

Get it wrong, and our actions become counterproductive – easing consciences without helping to resolve the problem. Compassion? Yes, please. But not naïveté. Naïveté kills people, the very people you claim to want to protect.

The hashtag should probably be:

#refugeeswelcomebutletsdoitlegallyandsensiblycynicalexploitersofrefugeesunwelcome
economicmigrantsonlywelcomewhentheybringtheskillsweneed

But that might be a bit too long for Twitter. It’s not a simple, quick-fix soundbite but a nuanced, thought-out message. My heart wants to sign the #refugeeswelcome petition; my head recognises that being compassionate is also about being sensible. I can’t sign up to something that suggests we should be taking people in from Europe – we should be taking them from the countries where the worst crises lie.

You can read this article on my Huffington Post blog here.

My Column – We have a moral duty to accept our fair share of refugees

As a UKIP member of the European Parliament, the next sentence comes with a number of caveats.

I believe, as a matter of moral duty, that we in the United Kingdom should be prepared to take our fair share of refugees from the current crisis caused by ISIS. Our ill-conceived, disastrous, woolly-minded involvement in Iraq contributed to the conditions necessary for ISIS to thrive and we must shoulder some responsibility ourselves.

We have always had a proud tradition of helping refugees. From the Huguenots, where roughly 50,000 people were settled in the UK over a 40-year period, to 120,000 Russian Jews over a 33-year period at the turn of the 20th century, we have always been a helping nation prepared to show support to those in need.

These movements of people fleeing into Britain, part of the history books which we learn about in school, rarely touched 5,000 a year and fade into insignificance when we consider the numbers of economic migrants arriving in the UK today.

In just one year to March 2015, we allowed 636,000 new people into the country: almost equivalent to the combined populations of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. This may just be scratching the surface; for example, the official figures show 53,000 immigrants from Romania/Bulgaria in the year ending June 2015 – but 214,000 from those countries registered for National Insurance numbers.

In the long-term barely 4% of those we allow into the country are those fleeing persecution. 96% of legal immigration is either through our own economic choice (non-EU) or the free-for-all open-door EU policy.

When Cameron picks on the 4% as easy targets, using dehumanising language like ‘swarm’, I am disgusted. I want us to be firm but fair on the 96%, making sure that those coming to the UK for economic reasons bring skills to benefit our economy.

We also need better security at Calais and our ports. Dangerous journeys across a string of ‘safe’ countries are unacceptable, with no border checks due to the Schengen Agreement on the continent, for people to risk their lives to move from one country to another. Frankly, Schengen contributes towards human suffering as there are no controls preventing unscrupulous traffickers from smuggling refugees across Europe, from safe country to safe country, in the most appalling conditions. Nor am I naive enough to believe that everyone crossing the Mediterranean are actually refugees: tens of thousands from Bangladesh, for example, are known to have used the cover of the crisis to make the journey to Greece and Italy for economic reasons. Such behaviour worsens the conditions and misery of those genuinely fleeing persecution.

Twenty illegal immigrants have just been caught at the Port of Tyne, on a ferry from Amsterdam to the UK. I have every sympathy with genuine refugees fleeing persecution from appalling and brutal conditions in Syria and elsewhere. But no refugees are being persecuted in Holland, and those arriving in North Shields intended to break the law; I am glad that 15 illegal immigrants have already been returned to Holland and hope that the rest will face a similar journey soon. Those facilitating this illegal act should face the full force of the law and, if convicted, should face a stiff penalty designed to deter others contemplating similar crimes.

But in my view that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t – voluntarily, not at the behest of the likes of Angela Merkel putting a gun to our heads – agree to take a share of the massive numbers of refugees. Dead children wash up on a Turkish beach, their journey from war-torn Syria to the Greek island of Kos ending in tragedy. We share a human responsibility.

The UK must have the final say over our own borders, decide our own immigration and asylum policy – but the European Union seeks to turn this crisis, like every crisis into an opportunity to push for ‘more Europe’ and a power-grab to move power from nation states to Brussels. The European Union clearly wants a Common Asylum Policy, and frankly I don’t trust the EU to decide such matters for us.

This is my dilemma as a UKIP MEP. We need to be caring people, willing to do our bit and help out. We want to live up to our heritage and tradition of helping those in need. Yet we’re being sucked into a political vacuum: caught between the rock of being uncaring and the hard place of handing over power to the EU. We’re asked to choose between the current record levels of immigration, and even more immigration.

I’ve had letters from constituents on both sides: those believing we should ‘do our bit’ to help people who have been through the most appalling of conditions, and those who bemoan mass immigration or want us to abide by the law, not pander to the chaos in Calais. In a way, they’re both right. We’re being given false choices: there has to be another way. A way to be human, caring, thoughtful – and dare I say it, British – without permitting current levels of mass economic immigration with all its attendant social problems.

You can read this article on The Chronicle website here.

My Column – Once people start listening to Jeremy Corbyn they may not like what they hear

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t getting my vote for Labour Party leader. Unlike former Tory North East Member of the European Parliament Martin Callanan, I haven’t signed up to the Labour Party to try to obtain one.

In one sense, I welcome the idea that he’d at least put some clear blue water betweenLabour and the Conservatives again. How the Labour Party, from their political perspective, could abstain on the Welfare Bill is beyond me. Corbyn had the courage to defy the whip and vote against.

Although I’m UKIP, there are some ‘left-wing’ ideas that I might agree with; for example, in specific cases where there is a ‘natural monopoly’ I have some personal sympathy with Corbyn on renationalisation.

The Royal Mail is perhaps the best example of this: the service needs to be uniform and equally-priced throughout the country. In such cases, the cost saving from a state monopoly outweighs the cost saving from the efficiency of business.

But as much as I like the fact that he’s not a typical establishment politician, there’s much to worry about with Corbyn.

Some of the accusations made against him are fair, others less so. He’s not only auditioning for the job of leader of the Labour Party, ultimately he’s auditioning for the job of Prime Minister.

Do the meetings he’s held in Parliament, the views of some of his supporters, his favourable comments towards Putin’s Russia, or his virulently anti-Israel comments inspire us to believe that this is a man with the skill, tact and diplomacy required to be Prime Minister?

Corbyn is a naïve yet probably well-meaning idealist in the old-fashioned loony left tradition. His recent plans for all-women carriages on trains is a perfect example. An all-women train carriage begins to label all men as potential predators. It might stigmatise those women who choose not to ride in the all-women carriage. It creates a climate of fear, and it cheapens the problems faced by men who have been assaulted. It suggests that women must hide from men in order to be safe, fuels fear and sexism.

We don’t need gimmicks, we need every level of society to treat sexual assaults against women – and men – with the seriousness that they deserve.

The Left need to wake up to the fact that segregation is segregation, and discrimination is discrimination, even when you have a well-meaning idea behind it.

One of the biggest reasons that Corbyn has an excellent chance of winning is that, for the moment, people are hearing what they want to hear. That won’t be the case when he’s doing Prime Minister’s Questions at the despatch box.

I came across an extreme example of this recently. A friend of mine, who works in a factory, described a conversation that he had with a colleague. “I’m voting for that Corbyn guy”, the colleague gushed, “because he’s going to put a stop to all that immigration”.

“How do you figure that?”, my friend asked. “Well, Labour’s the party of the working man. And all this immigration is taking jobs away from the working man in this country. So Corbyn will put a stop to it.” Corbyn wants more immigration, not less.

I like the fact that Corbyn isn’t a cookie-cutter career politician, repeating platitudes ad nauseam. The trouble for him is, at some point people will start listening to his message and they may not like what they hear.

The other candidates haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory: Cooper and Kendall have both had rather insipid campaigns.

 

 

You can read this article in full on The Chronicle website here.

My Column – Dear Mr. President

The European Union has just released a video comparing the European Union to the federalised structure of the United States. Given President Obama’s recent suggestion that Britain must stay in the European Union, I’ve written an open letter wondering what it would be like if America had to be part of an EU-like structure…

Dear President Obama,

I see you’ve told the United Kingdom that you should stay in the European Union. Politics is all about trying to understand other people’s point of view, so I’m going to try to make it easy for you to understand mine. Put yourself in our shoes, and let’s imagine together what it would be like if America had a fully-fledged equivalent to the European Union.

You could forget the US Constitution. The Republicans claim you forget it anyway, but the pan-American Union would be able to pass laws to override America’s. Your Supreme Court would be allowed to keep the name but would no longer be in any way supreme; new pan-American courts would be able to overrule it – and they would, on a regular basis.

You’re debating at the moment how best to police the border with Mexico. If you had a Union like ours, the answer would be very simple. To get into the United States and have the right to live or work there, all you’d have to do would be to show a Mexican passport. Or a Venezuelan, Argentinian or Canadian passport. Even if they had criminal records, it would be very difficult – bordering on impossible – to say no. To give some idea of the scale we’re talking about, we had more immigration in the year 2010 alone than in all of the years from 1066 to 1950 put together. Imagine the social welfare bill that you’ll create: lots of American workers will lose their jobs because they’ll be undercut by the huge oversupply of migrant labour. The only upside is that it would annoy Donald Trump. A lot.

Actually that’s pretty much the same excuse the British Labour Party gave to voters. Lord Mandleson described it as sending out ‘search parties’ for new immigrants, and one of Tony Blair’s (George Bush’s mate, remember?) advisers said they were doing it to ‘rub the Right’s noses in diversity’. Guess what? Labour have lost the next two elections.

Because you’re a relatively prosperous nation, you’d have to pay in more than you get out. It’d be costing you about $1,750 per year for every family of 4 in the USA. Well, that’s what we’re paying in Europe. As you’re relatively economically prosperous you’d probably have to pay more actually. Then you’d get roughly half of that money handed back to you in ‘grants’. They’d tell you that they were giving you money, expect you to be grateful, and you’d have to take every opportunity to thank them for their overwhelming generosity.

Whilst we’re on the subject of money, I know Americans are very keen on their petrol (you call it ‘gas’ but it’s clearly a liquid to us) prices. Motorists at the pump are paying about $2.60 per gallon today in America. You’ll have to introduce a new fuel tax of at least $1.55 per gallon. Then, on top of the whole price of the fuel, you’ll have to add an extra sales tax (we call it VAT, and your bureaucrats are going to just love it, but more of that later) of at least 15%. By the time you’re done, I’d say that American motorists would have to pay at least an extra $2 a gallon. I don’t think your motorists would like that, but you might try to confuse them: you won’t be measuring fuel in gallons any more, you’ll be measuring it in litres. There’s no choice about it, you’re also going to have to convert to the metric system of measurements. So that it doesn’t confuse people in Paraguay.

In America, the highest Sales Tax is in California at 7.5% but five states have no Sales Tax at all. You’ll have to raise that to a minimum of 15% in Value Added Tax. But you know how a Sales Tax works, right? At the point of sale to the consumer, you charge the tax. VAT is a little more…complicated. At every stage of the manufacturing process, when you go from manufacturer to wholesaler, wholesaler to retailer, you charge VAT. Every time it’s sold on, businesses can reclaim the VAT they’ve paid and charge it to the next business in the chain. It can be paid and reclaimed five or more times until finally the customer pays their tax. Think that’s a recipe for fraud? It is. Think it adds massive red tape and makes your businesses uncompetitive? It does.

You know that trade deal, TTIP, that you’re currently negotiating with Europe? The one that’s causing all the stir about secret courts and opening the British NHS up to competition? Well, you can forget negotiating that trade deal on your own. You’d have a pan-American trade chief to negotiate your trade deals for you. Not in America’s interests? Sorry, but it’s that deal or no deal.

New pan-American laws would override your own. Forget whether they’re actually needed in America or not. And all US businesses would have to abide by those laws, whether they traded outside the European Union or not. You’d get a new ‘Parliament’, but it would have very few actual powers. For arcane reasons no-one would quite be able to understand, once a month every month – regular as clockwork – it would pack its bags and move itself backwards and forwards between Chile and Brazil. The real power would lie with unelected bureaucrats. Despite America being a world power, you’d have one Commissioner just like any of the tiny countries in the continent of America.

You’d get a new anthem, a new flag to fly over your government buildings, and your soldiers would be allowed to fight and die under that flag. Foreign-flagged vessels would be welcome to fish your waters and you’d have an agricultural policy that would be the same for America as the more rural nations.

Have you given any thought to replacing the dollar with a new currency? It might be called something like the panamericano. In Europe, the new currency doesn’t feature greats like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. It has pictures of a series of European bridges. Not real bridges, you’ll understand: that might favour one country over another. Just pictures of things that look like they might be real bridges. It’s all fake, which actually is a great metaphor for our European Union.

If you decided to join the new currency you’d share the same fiscal policy with the whole of South America. I know that Argentina’s currency peg with the dollar didn’t work out too well, but never mind: if you actually shared notes and coins too they’d pretty much be trapped into it, right? On the other hand you could, like the UK, decide not to join. Then whenever one of those countries that did join gets into trouble because it joined, your taxpayers get the privilege of writing a large cheque to bail them out.

You know how America has a vote at the World Trade Organisation and some influence in world affairs? You’d lose that. If you’re anything like us, you’d be hugely unsuccessful. Our record in the Council of Ministers is ‘played 55, lost 55’ – that’s worse even than your Chicago Bears did last season. We opposed 55 measures and were outvoted on every single one. So in theory you’d have a reasonable amount of influence but in practice you’d have next to none.

You can read the rest of this article at my Huffington Post blog here.

My Column – The Mirage of EU Rights

Barely a debate on the European Union goes by without the ‘in’ side of the debate pointing to rights which they say were introduced by the European Union: equal pay, anti-discrimination, a 48-hour working week, maternity leave and holiday pay. The pat Eurosceptic answer is to point out that we could easily have introduced any of these things for ourselves outside the European Union. It doesn’t count as a benefit of EU membership if we could have done the same for ourselves.

Until recently I hadn’t really thought much wider than the above, but, in a sudden realisation sitting on an overcrowded carriage in a train home from London, it occurred to me that we can do much better than this. The pro-EU argument here isn’t just weak, it’s a house of cards which falls down the moment it’s actually subjected to proper scrutiny.

I’ll start with equal pay for men and women. The Labour Party had held a policy of equal pay since 1959, but in 1970 the Labour government finally got around to passing the Equal Pay Act, which guaranteed men and women equal pay for the same jobs. Britain didn’t even join the European Union (then EEC) until 1973, and it was the Conservatives – not Labour – who took us in. The double entendre ‘took us in’ is entirely intentional. Directive 76/207/EEC was passed three years later (the clue is in the ’76’) – fully six years after the Equal Pay Act had been signed into law in the United Kingdom. It’s a common theme that apologists for the European Union claim credit for things which were not done by the European Union.

What of race discrimination? The Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976 made discrimination illegal. Whilst the 1976 Act technically took place after we had joined the EEC, in context it is quite clear that this legislation was passed as part of an ongoing move towards equality in the United Kingdom. The relevant European Union directive, 2000/43/EC, would be passed only decades later.

The rest of these claims concern employment rights in one form or another. The best claim for the European Union having influenced any of these issues is holiday pay. In the UK legislation in this regard dates back all the way to the 19th century and the Bank Holidays Act of 1871. That 19th-century British Act arguably provides more guarantees of holidays in law than the 21st century system in the USA. After the Holidays With Pay Act 1938, the direction of travel with paid holidays was already clear. Yet we still, within the European Union, have fewer paid holidays than countries like Afghanistan. Even where the pro-EU case is at its strongest, it’s not actually that strong at all.

In one sense though, that’s beside the point. When the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, the United Kingdom vetoed the Social Chapter which reinforced the British refusal to sign up in 1989. Being members of the European Union did not force us to introduce any of these measures. It was a political decision taken by Tony Blair in 1997 to sign the UK up, which led to them becoming part of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997. In short the European Union didn’t give those rights, the British government did by making a decision to sign up to the Social Chapter. We could have been members of the European Union without any of this legislation.

You can read the rest of this article at my Huffington Post blog here.

My Column – Politics should be about legislation not what politicians look like

…And in the red corner, weighing in at 8 stone exactly…”  There’s a reason that the ring announcer in boxing gives the weight – and possibly height and reach – of both competitors.  The numbers are part of understanding the nature of the match that’s about to take place.

That reason doesn’t apply to politics.  When the Mail on Sunday asked Liz Kendall (one of the Labour Party leadership contenders) how much she weighs, it was completely irrelevant to the job.  It’s unnecessary press intrusion.  I don’t bandy about words like ‘sexist’ lightly  When you do, they lose their meaning – in a similar way when the word ‘racist’ is used to describe a children’s nursery rhyme, or to describe the Black Country flag designed by a 12-year-old girl (symbolising glassmaking, heavy industry and foundries), the real victims of racism are demeaned.  Reserve the word racism for racists, and it has a bigger meaning.

I don’t swear, so if anyone heard me swear they would know I was fuming with rage.  The swear word has a greater meaning and impact if used sparingly than if it litters every conversation.  Liz Kendall asked whether the journalist would have asked the same question of a man.  The journalist did sort-of did ask George Osborne a similar question last year, when he was busy losing weight on the latest fad diet, though that’s none of the national media’s business either in my view.

The two situations are different in reason and tone.  When a journalist suggests that she might weigh ‘about the same as the Duchess of Cambridge’, for me that clearly crosses a line.  These comments are only being made because she’s a woman, and that’s not acceptable.  Whether Liz Kendall should lead the Labour Party is nothing to do with her gender.  Incidentally, that’s why I also believe that Labour are wrong to have all-women shortlists for Parliament. They should choose the best candidate irrespective of gender or ethnicity.  In the straight-talking UKIP way, I’m going to call out the treatment of Liz Kendall for what it is.  Sexism.

New Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has been subjected to a barrage of questions about his Christianity.  Does he personally believe that gay sex is a sin? What’s his view on abortion?  When you first think about it, this seems (slightly) more relevant than the questions to Liz Kendall.  But have you ever seen a Muslim or Jewish politician hauled over the coals over a similar issue?

I personally choose not to smoke; I don’t believe it’s right for me personally to do that, because of the health risks involved, but I don’t seek to force my personal feelings upon society.  All that matters from a political perspective is my stance about society.  So if – and he hasn’t said that he does – Tim Farron actually personally believes that gay sex is a sin, that’s his personal business.  Or if he believed it would be sinful for him personally to do it, that would be a private opinion.  I say, so what?  On the other hand, if he supported a public policy change to take rights away from gay people, that would be our business.  But he doesn’t, and there’s no evidence that he even believes any of the above either.

He hasn’t called for tougher limits on abortion either – though he has said that every abortion is a ‘tragedy’.  I’d go further myself actually.  I would call for a change in the law: a 24-week limit for abortion when babies now often survive without long-term harm being born at less than 24 weeks is just plain wrong.  I’ve seen Lib Dems leave their party because of Tim Farron’s personal views.  I could think of many reasons to leave the Lib Dems, but leaving because the leader is a Christian? How illiberal; how intolerant!

The ‘job’ in politics should be about what legislation not what we look like, about public policy not gender.  It’s about representing my constituents and working as hard as I can on your behalf – despite covering a vast area that stretches from Darlington to Berwick.  Earlier in this article I said that I don’t use swear words: to do so regularly spoils the impact.  I won’t swear myself, but when Liz Kendall told the Mail on Sunday journalist to “f*** off” I did allow myself a little smile.

My Column – Spartan Spirit and Sunday’s Referendum

Like many legends, it is perhaps a little overstated in the retelling – though only a little. On October 28 every year, Greek communities around the world celebrate the ‘anniversary of the No’. At dawn on that day in 1940, Benito Mussolini demanded that his army be allowed to enter Greece and occupy strategic positions.

Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas is said to have responded defiantly with a single word: “Oxi” – meaning ‘No’. Greeks took to the streets in large numbers, chanting “Oxi!”

The one-word answer is a proud tradition of that part of the world, dating back to the Ancient Spartans. Phillip II of Macedon is said to have sent the Spartans a message with various demands, saying “Unless you agree to my demands I will wage war on you and, if I win this war, you will be slaves forever.” The Spartans responded with the single word “If”. Phillip did not attack. From such Spartan (Lacedaemon) brevity comes the modern word ‘laconic’.

Similarly, the word ‘Oxi’ means more than just no; it is a symbol of defiance. Knowing that refusal would mean all the hardship of war, Greeks had the courage to do precisely that – and in the clearest possible terms.

On Sunday, Greeks will go to the polls for a referendum on whether they will accept punitive bailout terms. A quick reminder of how countries normally recover from financial crisis: their currency devalues naturally, causing their goods and services to be incredibly cheap on global markets, creating jobs and an economic boom.

With Greece shackled to the euro, it cannot take control of its own economy in this most basic way. At this stage any other country would be defaulting on its debt. But Tuesday’s relatively minor Greek default was bitterly opposed – not because of the consequence to the euro, and the political project.

The eurozone puts its own will above Greek sovereignty, attacking the very decision to allow the people a say on such punitive terms. The latest opinion poll suggests 46% will vote ‘No’ to 37% for ‘Yes’.

Europe stepped in to prevent Greek democracy once before, so it has form in this respect. Expect an unprecedented level of cajoling, threats and scaremongering from Europe to attempt to bully Greece into voting ‘Yes’. They have already begun to suggest that Greece will be forced out of the euro if they don’t vote Europe’s way in the referendum. There is no legal basis for this to happen, but if it did – so what? It might cause some temporary short-term pain, but it would provide the Greek economy with the tools (devaluation in particular) needed to recover. After all, who wouldn’t be rushing to take advantage of the weak drachma to enjoy a cut-price Greek holiday? Would Greek olive oil not become very attractive to British supermarkets? The Greek economy would bounce back far quicker with the picture of Apollo back on their banknotes than with the picture of a generic, non-existent bridge.

Will the Greek people fall for the eurospin, or will they show that same defiant ‘Oxi’ spirit which epitomises all that is best about Greece throughout the ages? The word ‘Oxi’ may literally translate as ‘No’, but it means so much more than that. It’s not negative but a positive assertion. An assertion of rights, of self-determination, of what it means to be Greek.

On Sunday the complex referendum question in practice means only this: Do the Greek people accept the right of Europe to overrule their democratically-elected governments?

You can read this article in full on my Huffington Post blog here.

 

My Column – A Case Study in Judicial Injustice

Justice should be the same for anyone: rich or poor; male or female; gay or straight; religious or atheist, British or non-British. I reject the ideas of those who claim that some people should be treated more leniently than others. The notion that women should receive a lighter sentence than men for the same crimes is a nonsense, as is any thought that cultural values could excuse sexual offences. Likewise, I reject the ideas of those at the other end of the spectrum who would use our justice system as a form of revenge or who would treat immigrants more harshly.

I believe that sentencing policy is generally too light for a range of offences, mainly those involving violence, dishonesty or contempt of a court order. The impact of violent and dishonest offences upon the victim is profound: burglary, serious assaults and theft from an employer for example should be treated more seriously than they are at present. If you, through repeatedly breaking the law, find yourself disqualified from driving and continue to drive anyway, then the level of danger and contempt is such that only a prison sentence can be justified.

I recently read this article which provides a case study of everything that is wrong with the current system. I’m going to redact nationality and religion because these things shouldn’t matter when it comes to sentencing.

A father, supported by his family, had a surprise in store for his daughter’s 14th birthday. He sent her younger siblings off to school, then gathered the family together. He dressed her in a wedding dress and, it appears without warning, introduced her to a man in his 30s. A wedding ceremony was conducted and she was coerced into saying words in a language she did not even speak. Later that day, the man she had just ‘married’ raped her. It appears that the father did not know that the man was going to rape his daughter, and the agreement was that they would not have sex until she was of legal age to do so. The daughter fled the family home after being raped.

The man who she had ‘married’ left the country soon after, and only the father was in court to answer charges over the forced marriage. The primary responsibility of course lies with the rapist, but the father’s actions seriously endangered his daughter. Parents have a responsibility to keep their children out of harm’s way, not to put them directly into it.

Ask yourself what you think a fair sentence in such circumstances should be. Does it meet the aims of punishment – does it adequately punish the crime, deter others from committing similar offences, and protect the public? Rehabilitation must come after the rest, if only because the others relate to society and rehabilitation to the offender only. It’s important, and we need a prison system which is able to meet that need.

You can read this article in full on my Huffington Post blog here.

If you don’t like TTIP, you’re going to hate the European Union

First published 25th June 2015 in The Journal

 

Nigel Farage is in his 17th year in the European Parliament, and he tells me he’s never seen anything like it. We’ve been deluged with emails, letters, phone calls and other messages about the proposed trade deal between the EU and the USA. At one point I had to respond to over a thousand emails in 24 hours. A lot of people reading this article will have already been in correspondence with me on the issue.

The Left of British politics have attacked this trade deal because of the huge power it would give to big corporations: as it stands American companies could compete for public sector contracts in the UK, companies would have immense power to sue national governments and big business, not small business, would benefit. They’re right to do so. Personally I’d be all for a genuine free trade agreement between the UK and the USA, expanding our markets, but not the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)’. What’s being proposed isn’t a free trade agreement, but a corporatist trade agreement.

When this all came before the European Parliament and it became clear that there was massive public interest – largely unreported in the media – the Parliament’s President used an arcane procedural point to cancel the vote. That point could technically be used to cancel a vote on almost any matter with significant interest, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it used. The next morning, they cancelled the debate too.

Everything that’s wrong with TTIP is not an isolated instance, but a miniature glimpse into the workings of the European Union. If you dislike TTIP for the reasons above, you should truly hate the European Union!

European Union public procurement rules already force UK government contracts to be put out to tender to foreign companies. The Private Finance Initiative (which was the driving force behind the part-privatisation of our NHS under Labour) was a product of that Labour government trying to get around EU rules on public spending. Ask yourself the question: does it even make sense that Labour Party, the Party of Aneurin Bevan, would have part-privatised our NHS voluntarily? Yet if our government fails to follow these rules, then we can be hauled over the coals and sued in the European Court of Justice.

There are over 30,000 lobbyists in Brussels, which is more than 40 lobbyists for every MEP – though I’m not interested in being lobbied by big business. I’m interested in being lobbied by my constituents. Corporate lobbyists push for tough new legislation, knowing that they can cope with it – whilst small businesses don’t have the resources and will be put out of business. I’m not interested in being wined and dined by them, or the free-flowing champagne which is on offer every night in the European Parliament buildings to those who are prepared to listen (or sell their soul?) to corporate lobbyists.

Democracy and the will of the people are routinely ignored: they force people to vote again until the ‘right’ referendum result is achieved, and the unelected Commission has far more power than the elected MEPs. Decisions are made behind closed doors and if – like Greek Prime Minister Papandreou – you dare to challenge the European Union on anything – you find yourself out of office very quickly.

These are exactly the same problems as we have with TTIP, and worse, only they’re not just proposals – they’re going on right here and right now whilst we’re members of the European Union. This is why the ‘old’ Labour guard – people like Tony Benn – opposed the European Union. Sadly, that movement within Labour is just a shadow of its former self. Even if I disagreed with some of what they said, I respected where they came from. They truly cared about working people.

As a UKIP Member of the European Parliament, I take left-wing views on certain things – like helping working people to make an honest living – and right-wing views on others – for example I want tough action on crime. I oppose uncontrolled mass immigration from Europe (right-wing) for left-wing reasons. A massive oversupply of unskilled and semi-skilled labour drives wages down for British workers, which is great if you’re mega-rich and want to hire a nanny, but terrible if you’re a bricklayer, security guard or electrician.