My Column – Beware of the European Union Bearing Gifts

History seems to repeat itself in the European Parliament altogether too often. This week in Strasbourg the European Parliament voted for a well-meaning yet naive proposal to cap the costs that can be charged for card payments at a very low level. Whether this ever actually becomes law is an open question, but in the meantime no doubt we will hear plenty of it from the EU’s PR machine.

Remember when the European Parliament voted to end mobile phone roaming charges whilst in other European countries? It happened a number of years ago, but was finally due to come into force at the end of this year.

In the meantime, forgetting the legislation, consumer demand had already overtaken the EU’s processes. Imagine that phone companies were preparing to comply. They’d be removing charges from phone calls from other EU countries. But in fact, something very different occurred. With no legislative prodding at all, providers started to respond to demand. From Australia or the USA, with New Zealand soon to follow, charges are scrapped with my provider: I can call home for free. Non-EU European countries like Norway and Switzerland got in on the act too. In fact, calling home is now free from more non-EU countries than EU countries – despite the obvious point that Europe is geographically closer than the USA, Indonesia or Sri Lanka.

The EU didn’t do it, the market did. But for years, when asked to provide just a single benefit of EU membership to ordinary people that we can’t get outside, the go-to answer was that mobile phone prices would come down. Just like the EU claiming credit for NATO’s success in keeping the peace in Europe, or for ‘European funding’ that just gives us some of our own taxes back with strings attached, they claimed the credit for the role of the free market.

If you force these things to happen when a company can’t make a business case for it (yes, my phone calls from Belgium when I’m in the European Parliament are still pricey), then they’ll just quietly put up their line rental prices to cover the cost. Frankly, I think that would be a bad thing: the public shouldn’t have to pay to subsidise what would be free international calls for MEPs!

And then, this year, the proposal was quietly scrapped. Not with the fanfare that had greeted the announcement in the first place, but with a tumbleweed blowing across the front of the European Parliament.

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

My Column – If we get the decision on e-cigarettes wrong it could cost many lives

I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. I just don’t trust myself not to enjoy it too much, and to become addicted.

When I was a teenager, and my friends were trying cigarettes, I chose not to for that reason.

Normally I’d be the last person to write an article about smoking. But recently, I’ve noticed that many – if not most – of my friends who smoke have replaced their cigarettes with e-cigarettes.

Some have tried for years, and failed, to quit smoking altogether. So I’m happy to see them doing something which is much less unhealthy. And here in the North East, we have the highest rates of smoking in the country.

Now, after a couple in Staffordshire were barred from adopting because one of them had used an e-cigarette, we learn that North Tyneside and Durham councils have similar rules – flying in the face of advice from Public Health England and the Fostering Network, depriving children of loving families.



You can read the rest of my column on the Journal website here.

My Column – Explaining (Aggressive) Tax Avoidance and Evasion

In the media, we’re constantly hearing talk of tax avoidance, aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion. Changing one word for another can completely change the meaning of a sentence. So when we talk about clamping down on ‘immoral’ ways to get out of paying tax, what do we mean? And what should the country do about it?

A very simplistic (and therefore, perhaps, slightly wrong) view is to say that tax avoidance is legal, and tax evasion illegal; avoidance being about finding ways within the law to minimise the tax you pay, and evasion being about deceiving the Inland Revenue over your true tax position.

The current situation goes back to one of the most famous legal cases, in 1936, with a ruling handed down by Lord Tomlin on the Duke of Westminster’s tax arrangements:

“Every man is entitled if he can to order his affairs so that the tax attaching under the appropriate Acts is less than it otherwise would be. If he succeeds in ordering them so as to secure this result, then, however unappreciative the Commissioners of Inland Revenue or his fellow tax-payers may be of his ingenuity, he cannot be compelled to pay an increased tax.”

Those who want to legally avoid tax have relied on this ruling ever since, although it was modified slightly in 1981 in the Ramsay case. Now, a deliberate and aggressive attempt to exploit a loophole isn’t enough to save you from legally having to pay tax: a court may take into account the purpose of the legislation. To take a rather silly example, if Parliament were to introduce a tax on all red cars, then you fixed a black stripe on it and claimed ‘I don’t have to pay the tax any more because this car is no longer fully red’, you might find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Actually there’s a lesson here that politicians should be careful about how they introduce new taxes: in 1696, a law was introduced taxing people based upon the number of windows in their house, and it wasn’t long before windows were bricked up across the country with consequent lack of fresh air and health issues. Getting the law right is important.

First of all, what do we want to achieve? We want to ensure that large multinational companies pay their share in tax. We want to ensure that it’s no longer in the interests of the very rich to hire hugely expensive accountants because it’s still cheaper than paying the tax that’s owed.

But at the same time, we don’t want to harm the small business which is in a precarious situation. Whether a business voluntarily registers for VAT or not, whether mileage is calculated on the HMRC per-mile rate or based on the depreciation of the car, or whether a sole trader registers as a company or is self-employed – these decisions are often taken on the basis of what’s best for the business, and which option will pay the least tax.


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



My Column – Ukip – Voting Yes in the European Parliament?

I’m writing this article on my way back from Strasbourg, having just voted in favour of a motion for probably the first time since being elected as a Ukip MEP. Raif Badawi, a liberal blogger, was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes in Saudi Arabia, because his blog was critical of the religious system. I voted to condemn the flogging of Raif Badawi and call upon the Saudi authorities to release him. Seems fair enough? All Badawi did was exercise his freedom of speech.

But as ever, these things are not quite as simple as they appear. The political groups drafting the resolution tend to take the opportunity to add other things in. Sometimes it’s a call for taxpayers’ money to be spent on a project that we don’t need.

Maybe you’ve seen a Twitter advert which asked “Why do Ukip hate elephants so much?” after six of our MEPs (before I was elected) voted against a resolution. The resolution concerned complained that the UK and other nations are allowed to set our own laws on wildlife crime. It called for the harmonisation of all member states’ laws on wildlife crime. As the UK already has very strict laws on ivory, we don’t want our laws to be weakened. We were also concerned about the text suggesting Europol should get involved, because the European police force lacks many of the checks and balances of the British police. The headline vote was to oppose the ivory trade; the practical implications would have done the opposite.

Back to today’s vote, there were a few parts of the resolution I wasn’t comfortable with. It called on the European Commission to intervene, which rarely ends well. The text was quite badly-drafted in condemning all corporal punishment: are they really equating a parent giving a child a smack with a brutal thousand-lash public flogging of a blogger? I’m not wishing to comment on the debate over parental discipline here, but that’s precisely my point: it isn’t relevant to a resolution about the case of Raif Badawi. So why was it in there?

On a more international note, a sentence in the text compared Saudi Arabian punishments to those of ISIS. Was that text really necessary or could it be counterproductive diplomatically to compare the two? Just because there’s a grain of truth to that sentence doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to put it in a resolution.

In the end, after much soul-searching and despite my misgivings, I decided I ought to vote in favour of the resolution. I told my assistant that I would be doing so, and expected I would be rebelling against the Party line (Ukip doesn’t really have a formal ‘whipping’ system, but we try to achieve a consensus if we can). We normally abstain on similar issues. Then something remarkable happened: I went to the voting meeting, only to find that our staff were also recommending we vote in favour of the resolution. The humanitarian issue, they argued, was so clear that it overrode our other concerns over the text.


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





My Column – The screw in my sofa was too tight – but the whole European Union system has a screw loose

I normally write in this column about the major political issues of the day, but nothing better encapsulates what’s wrong with the European Union than the curious incident of the sofa in my office.

On July 1, the new MEPs took up our seats and we were shown to our shiny new offices. Everything is luxurious, but utterly grey and soulless: just like the European Union itself.

Each office comes with a wooden unit with drawers, wardrobes and a fold-out sofa built in.

I arrived in my Brussels office, only to find that someone had screwed the sofa shut. Not having a screwdriver of the right size handy, not wanting to risk taking a screwdriver from the UK in case of awkward questions at customs, and thinking it was a straightforward task, I asked for the Parliament’s furniture services to simply come and remove the screw.

“Remove the screw?” I was told, in horror. “But you are a député. You must have a new sofa!” My protests about waste fell on deaf ears.



You can read the rest of this article in my Journal column here.

My Column – Target-Driven Madness: UK Energy Policy

Perhaps nowhere is the short-termism of British politics better seen than in energy. Here, the Left-Right divide is stark but utterly meaningless. But perhaps the concept of Left and Right is outdated since the rise of Ukip, a Party with a blend of traditionally right-wing and traditionally left-wing thinking combined under the umbrella of common sense.

With energy, it is the Right which seems to be concerned about the cost of energy to working people; the Left, about meeting arbitrary environmental targets irrespective of cost. Just like Ukip’s approach to crime (which cuts through the old Right-Left deterrence-rehabilitation argument by seeing criminal justice not as a choice between the two but as two sides of the same coin), our energy stance cuts through the political spin. We are derided for it by an established political class which is bereft of its own new ideas. This article, though, is my own personal thoughts rather than a statement of Ukip policy.

Biomass is a textbook example of target-driven government policy missing an open goal. When a tree in the UK is cut down, it needs to be dried out (up to 50% of the weight is likely to be water due to our wet climate) and then processed. Pretty much every part of the tree is useful for something. Even sawdust can be used for example in the production of chipboard.

Whatever the wood itself has been used for, at the end of its life it can be recycled. Once the nails and other contaminants have been removed, it can be used again. At each stage of the process, there will be some dust which isn’t really suitable for making anything. It might be that, on average, the same piece of wood could be used and recycled six times. In that time, it has perhaps been an internal door, a kitchen surface, laminate flooring and a chest of drawers.


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

My Columns – Crystal Balls and General Elections

Political anoraks are going to love 2015, the most unpredictable election campaign in a generation. It’s been at least 23 years since we last had a General Election campaign as difficult to predict as this one.

In 1992, the Conservative Party had deposed Margaret Thatcher as leader. An insipid John Major faced the unelectable Neil Kinnock, but opinion polls suggested that it would be touch and go. Opinion polls in 1992 lacked the sophistication of today’s polling, not realising (for example) the fact that Labour voters were more likely to answer the phone than Conservative voters. So the Conservatives outperformed the polls, gained a narrow overall majority and saw their next government racked by scandals that would keep them out of power for 13 years.

1992 was competitive, but lacked the complexity of what is to come in 2015. There are many unknowns, and few of them relate to the Labour and Conservative parties. Neither is riding high in the opinion polls, neither has shown signs of sweeping the nation at Parliamentary by-elections, Council and European elections. Indeed, it is the other parties which could lead to some interesting results:


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



My Column – Small Business: EU-Expendable or Economic Engine Room?

The biggest assault on our small businesses for many years seems to have slipped through the public consciousness. I was aware of it, of course, but until very recently I had failed to grasp the sheer scale of it.

Big business, of course, loves much of the Brussels system. They have the money and resources to lobby the Commission and Parliament, which of course no small business can realistically do. Brussels has more lobbyists than Washington DC (hint: that’s not actually something to be proud of) and so big business is able to manipulate EU legislation in ways that the others simply cannot. This is where I fail to understand the mindset of the Left of British politics in respect of the European Union. They remain pro-EU despite the fact that the EU is the friend of everything that they hate: globalisation, big business and the corporatist agenda.

I’m writing about something which is putting small businesses in my constituency and all over the country out of business. It all sounds so very straightforward, and it seems to have come out of the idea that Amazon and other companies trading online should be made to pay their fair share of VAT in every country. So far, so good. You might agree or you might disagree but even if you disagree, you can see the Commission’s reasoning. The days of companies plumping for the country with the lowest rate of VAT would be over. It may not be the most effective means of improving the tax system, but it’s a simple one.



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

My Column – To the Murderers Who Attacked Charlie Hebdo

It is quite clear that you do not care about the loss of life and suffering that you have caused. It is quite clear that you have no regard to the friends and family of your victims or to the people of France. You clearly lack the conscience to recognise that what you did was fundamentally immoral and sickening to all right-minded people. There is no point in asking you to reflect on right and wrong. I ask you instead to reflect on the utter futility of those murders and the impact to the faith you claim to follow.

There may be blood on your hands, but your actions have far wider consequences than you may care to admit. You do not realise what you have done, the impacts you have had on global political opinion or the freedom of moderate Muslims to practice their religion in peace. Consider what you have achieved. In the days leading up to your massacre we saw the far right take to the streets of Germany. By your actions you give fuel to their hatred. The far right in the UK – parties such as the BNP – have been utterly defeated. By your actions you have raised the spectre of the return of such unsavoury organisations.

You have set back the cause of tolerance and understanding of Muslims in Europe. Few members of the general public are aware of the differences between Sunni and Shi’a, between Suffi and Wahabi, just as few would be able to explain the difference between Protestant and Catholic. Although your beliefs do not represent those of Muslims in any way, shape or form, in the minds of many people you will have associated them with your actions.



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

My Column – UKIP and Ebola – Countering More Propaganda

There’s a strange prevailing attitude amongst the Left of British politics, which is essentially “if you don’t like something, blame it on Ukip”. This time, it’s Bob Morgan– who surpasses his own usual standards of anti-UKIP propaganda as he randomly implies that Ukip holds some pretty horrible views on Ebola. No evidence is presented for this wild assertion; it’s just the usual kind of logic. In his mind, ‘Ukip are bad’, ‘certain attitudes about ebola are bad’, and therefore ‘Ukip hold those views’. Aren’t Ukip awful? This is what passes for logic in the world of the Liberal Democrats.

An alternative approach might be to look at what people in Ukip have actually said about ebola; he wouldn’t have had to look very far to find what I’ve said on the subject as a Ukip MEP. I have argued consistently that our money should have been spent on ebola quickly. A fast response would have saved lives, and in the long run been cheaper than what we have done. We must salute those brave doctors, nurses and volunteers who have taken their lives in their hands trying to work against this awful disease, and I believe we have a responsibility to help those including the nurse who is, at the time of writing, being treated in the London Free Hospital.

My comments in the European Parliament can be found here and here on the subject. Compare them with Mr. Morgan’s article, his straw man caricature of Ukip. We see, once again, some intellectual dishonesty.



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