Pregnant women: ‘Papers, please!’

It might just be the increasingly autumnal weather, but it seems that every day another government announcement is made that chills me to the bone.

This morning I read in the Telegraph of a new pilot scheme, devised by the Home Office, that will force pregnant women to prove their right to use the NHS when planning to give birth.

It seems that con men have been making money by charging women (particularly from Nigeria) to use NHS services.

With breathtaking alacrity, the story explains that the London trust that is piloting the scheme (St George’s) decided to impose a blanket condition on all pregnant women ‘to avoid charges of discrimination’.

st-george_s-hospital

St George’s Hospital

There are several problems with this.

First of all, it’s victim-blaming. If it is true, as St George’s say, that it has fallen victim to “organised illegal activity”, the response should focus on the perpetrators of that illegal activity. This response does nothing to deal directly with the con men who are promoting so-called ‘maternity tourism’.

Secondly, it’s likely to lead to discrimination anyway. Harassed staff will screen to save time and white women will be asked for their proof of ID less frequently than people of colour.

Thirdly, this is another step towards a ‘papers, please’ culture in the NHS and in our public services generally. The story says the pilot is part of “national efforts to ensure that proof of ID is routinely presented before patients access all NHS care.”

Two better solutions would be doing proper detective work to investigate and destroy the networks that enable men to con pregnant women, and funding the NHS properly so that it does not have to embrace euphemistic ‘revenue protection’ practices. But the Home Office has almost always preferred lazy authoritarian solutions.

Finally, the story doesn’t go into details on what happens if heavily pregnant women are found not to have the right to use NHS services. Perhaps that would be too distasteful for the dainty consciences of average Telegraph readers.

Theresa May’s Britain: disgraceful, unpatriotic and openly racist

I can’t remember a worse day in British politics than October 4th, 2016. Today ranked far below even last year’s general election, when 49 of my party’s MPs were defeated, and June 23rd, a date I thought had established itself as comfortably the worst domestic political event of my lifetime.

I have spent the day in a state of bewilderment, anger, disgust and despair at the way the Conservative government is dragging the country into a disgraceful mire. They claim to base this on a single vote, a vote to leave the European Union, that was decided on a knife-edge – a mere 1.3 million votes out of 33 million. On the basis of this vote, they claim to understand what “the public” wants, and even what it thinks. Just look at tomorrow’s Daily Mail front page, if you can:

That is the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, calling other people elites. Making up non-existent elites that you can then blame for the country’s ills is textbook fascism.

Of course, this also illustrates another fundamental problem the UK faces: a media that is not just supine but more than happy to promote this kind of language in the face of the truth.

And the truth is utterly stark. The government that Theresa May is running can now only be described as overtly racist. The policy announcements made today by successive ministers were worthy of 1930s Germany and, as UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn rightly crowed, redolent of his party’s 2015 manifesto:

The fact that his party’s leader Diane James resigned tonight after 18 days in the job is no more than a depressing footnote to today’s events. The spectre of Nigel Farage’s inevitable return no longer feels threatening given what the Conservatives have become.

Theresa May was the one who popularised the concept of the Tories as ‘the Nasty Party’. Now she presides over some of the nastiest policies ever devised in British politics. It started early this morning with the announcement on doctors. When I read this I didn’t expect it to be the least worrying policy pledge of the day:

That’s the Defence Secretary promising that in future military conflicts, British soldiers will no longer be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. In theory this would mean they were less susceptible to investigations into battlefield behaviour and abuses. In other words, because they’re beautiful British troops, we should just trust that they’ll do the right thing and remove the external mechanism designed to hold them accountable (you know, the one that British lawyers helped to draft after the second world war). Thankfully, it seems that this policy is actually unworkable in practice, but it certainly kicked October 4th off nicely.

It warmed us up for Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May’s main announcement of the day:

Ok, let’s think about this. There are innumerable problems with this policy. To list a few:

  1. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must presumably leave (or be deported?) makes working in the NHS far less attractive for current and potential new foreign doctors. Given the NHS has a massive staffing shortage at present, the government wants to expand its services, and there is a rapidly ageing population, this is shortsighted.
  2. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must leave makes it far more likely that they will leave sooner. Why would you want to stay in a country that doesn’t want your highly prized skills? There are any number of other countries you could work in.
  3. Further numbers of home-grown doctors being trained is a great idea, but recruiting people is currently proving difficult. That seems to be mainly a response from students to chronic mismanagement and confrontational behaviour by, oh, the government. Things have got so bad that this year medical degrees went into clearing for the first time.
  4. Even if you can manage to train enough new British doctors, they will be just that: new. These foreign doctors have probably been here for a while, and if by some miracle they stay for another nine years, they’ll be very experienced. So the NHS will lose a lot of experience and institutional knowledge regardless, decreasing the quality of care for its patients.
  5. Finally, even if you replace all the foreign doctors with British ones, you’ll have the same number you started with, when the problem is that there’s a shortage. I need not explain this further, but for Jeremy Hunt’s benefit, if you have no more doctors at the end of the process than at the beginning, you have spent a lot of time and money on solving nothing.

You’ll notice I’ve left out the biggest problem with it. That is, naturally, that it is racist. There is no justification given for the policy other than their foreignness. That is simple racism. Explicitly discriminating against foreign doctors purely because they are foreign is unequivocally wrong.

Next up was Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary. She had a smart idea about cutting immigration too. Here it is:

In case you don’t know, providing education to international students is one of Britain’s most successful exports. Our universities make a ton of money from it. That money massively subsidises British students, keeping tuition fees lower and helping universities plan their financial future.

This policy achieves an impressive triple whammy:

  1. Telling international students they aren’t wanted – thereby reducing demand
  2. Telling universities they can’t be sure whether they’ll be able to recruit international students in future – throwing their plans into disarray
  3. Ensuring that tuition fees will almost certainly rise for British students

Another irony of this particular policy is that evidence suggests a vast majority of the public understand the difference between student immigration and employee immigration, and think people coming here to study for a short period is a great thing. But it’s probably simpler for Amber Rudd to pander to racists.

That certainly seems to be the case for her other policy, a requirement for… well, here’s the Times headline:

Firms must list foreign workers. And if they don’t employ enough British people, they will be ‘shamed’.

Can the Tories even hear themselves saying these things? Surely this runs counter to all their instincts. Even if we’re only talking about being pro-business – the most mercenary of all possible considerations – this is going to be a nightmare for everyone; enormous bureaucracy for no discernible purpose. Meanwhile a lot of the people who invest the most in our economy or have the best skills are foreigners – think of London’s tech industry, which is one of the world leaders.

But again, the real question for Amber Rudd and Theresa May is how they sleep at night. How do they live with themselves? This is bordering on fascism.

Speculation has raged since this announcement on how these pledges might be implemented. My money’s on yellow stars for the foreigners so they’re easy to spot. And for those unpatriotic firms with too many of the blighters, maybe the UK Border Force could smash their windows. I’m sure that would get the message across.

Last but not least in this parade of political putrescence comes our old friend, disgraced former minister Dr Liam Fox, who was forced to resign in disgrace until Theresa May graciously gave him a Cabinet role heading up all the non-existent trade deals we will try to strike after leaving the EU.

It was pretty difficult to identify the most egregious moment of this spectacular shitshow, but I think this statement by Fox takes the prize. We already knew that May’s government had not ruled out using EU citizens in the UK as a negotiating tool, but this particular description betrays how infantile these people are.

Fox really appears to feel hopeful about the tricky – to put it lightly – negotiation the government has to perform with 27 other EU member states. And one of the ‘main’ reasons for this hope is the number of EU foreigners living in the UK. And the reason Liam Fox is hopeful is that the British government will be able to threaten other countries about the future welfare of their citizens.

Consider that there are 3.2 million EU migrants in the UK at present, around 5% of the population. Let’s assume you know 100 people. 5% means you almost certainly know some of these people personally. They almost certainly go to the same school as your children. Depending on where in the country you’re from, there’s a not-insignificant chance you might be friends with them or your relatives might be married to them.

If what Liam Fox said does not disgust you, appal you, and make you sick to your stomach, then I don’t really want to know you.

Some final thoughts. I am angry. I want to do something to stop this awfulness from continuing and succeeding. I intend to use the minimal tools at my disposal to do so. That means campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, even from afar, and supporting all other ways I know of to fight this danger, including trade associations, independent (and sane) media, and online debate.

You might be wondering what Labour were doing all day. A lot of other people were too. Surely, on a day of such infamy and disgrace, they would stand up as the opposition the country needs? Especially after Jeremy Corbyn chose to defend immigration at their recent conference?

Eventually they tweeted this:

As a fellow Lib Dem on Twitter put it:

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

If you are anywhere near as angered by this litany of disgrace as I am, then please join the Liberal Democrats, today, and help us campaign. David Cameron’s resignation has caused a by-election in Witney on October 20th. A victory for the Liberal Democrats would send the loudest possible message to Theresa May and her pernicious ministers that this approach to Brexit and to government is completely unacceptable.

Fisking anti-EU myths: a task Canute would wisely avoid

The “debate” on the EU referendum has reached the point where ordinary people are now fully aware of it. We have reached that surreal stage in a campaign when a Facebook timeline normally full of vexatious memes, baby pictures and recycled memories now contains discussion of Treasury forecasts, fishing stocks and TTIP.

flag_yellow_highFor people who follow politics more regularly, it’s a strange old time. There are many myths and outright lies being spread, but for once, the perpetrators aren’t necessarily aware of what they are doing. It’s an opportunity to engage, challenge, and persuade, but you also have to pick your battles. Attempting to hold back the tide of misconceptions is a task King Canute would have mocked, just as he mocked the advisers hoping to flatter him – or so the story goes.

However, there are some interventions that cannot be ignored. One such, doing the rounds on my Facebook timeline today, was a lengthy piece posted yesterday by David Robertson, the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. Robertson is a prominent commentator and apologist for the evangelical Christian community in the UK, of which I used to be a member, and his views carry significant weight with church leaders and churchgoers alike.

It is regrettable, therefore, that his blog post – entitled “European Referendum: The TIPPing Point”, an apparent reference to TTIP – should be so obviously slanted towards one side of the debate.

I don’t usually enjoy writing “fisks” of such posts, because I think the format is overlong and comes across as confrontational. That is not my intention here. But I cannot leave his post unanswered and so what follows is an attempt to redress the balance. It won’t be exhaustive, as there are bits that are relatively uninteresting, but I will try to honour the context of each statement.


Robertson begins his post with a claim to be “inclined towards a pro-EU position” emotionally, politically and socially. He then lists “David Cameron, Hilary [sic] Clinton, Jeremy Corbyn, all the Scottish political leaders, most of big business, the BBC, and President Obama” as opposed to Britain leaving the EU.

This is immediately questionable. His inclusion of the BBC – an avowedly politically neutral organization, especially on such big questions as this – reveals that he is taking things as read from the beginning. He offers no evidence as to why he believes the BBC has abandoned neutrality. But here’s the point he’s making:

The case for staying in the EU is strong, but in a world of soundbites and political celebrity endorsements it appears as though facts and reasonable arguments are hard to come by.

Yes. Apparently party leaders and world leaders’ specific and carefully articulated positions on the major political issue of the day can be dismissed as “political celebrity endorsements”.  Of course, such “endorsements” are merely throwaway. They don’t include any facts or reasonable arguments, do they?

Well, judge for yourself. Here’s David Cameron on why we should stay in. Here’s Jeremy Corbyn. Here’s President Obama. And, because I’m a Lib Dem, here’s Tim Farron. I’m not sure any of those speeches can be accused of being mere “soundbites”.

So for a number of weeks I have been trying to find out as much as I could before finally making up my mind.  What I have discovered has astounded me – and also disturbed me how little of this information is actually being discussed in the public square.

I’m forced to question how hard you are looking if you think there is “little information” to be found. But then if you feel that the BBC is not a reliable source of information, it may indeed  be challenging to find the kind of stuff you want.


Robertson then outlines (and I mean outlines) the case for remaining in the EU. He does this in a remarkably succinct 281 words across six short paragraphs. For example:

Borders – Freedom to travel without passports. The removal of borders. The right to live, work and study in any other EU countries. These are surely great benefits.  I love being European. I consider myself European and I loathe what is sometimes called the ‘Little Englander’ mentality.

We don’t have the freedom to travel without passports, as the UK is not part of the Schengen Agreement. Moreover, there has not been a “removal of borders” even within Schengen, as the recent refugee crisis has shown; it is entirely possible for countries to reintroduce border controls when they wish, and they have done very recently.

Human rights. Hasn’t the EU been a bastion of human rights and workers rights? Despite its weaknesses the European Charter on Human Rights has been a positive thing.

The European Convention on Human Rights predates the EU and is separate to it. Staying in doesn’t guarantee that we keep it – and the Tory manifesto said they would scrap it. Irrelevant.

President Obama – ok perhaps he shouldn’t have come here and interfered in our affairs, but perhaps his warning is apposite. If Britain withdraws from the EU we cannot be guaranteed favourable trading arrangements with anyone.

The second sentence here is not what President Obama said at all. But then in order to know what he actually did say, you’d have to read his full remarks rather than dismissing them as just another soundbite from one of the most powerful and articulate men in the global public square.

I’ve undermined half of Robertson’s “case for Remain” there. Why would I do that, as someone who clearly favours staying in the EU? Because I want to show the lack of thought and effort – and the slanted approach – that has gone into his purportedly tentative, “instinctively pro-EU” post. If the Remain case can be so easily misrepresented, what about the Leave case? Let’s find out.


Robertson’s approach is to take each point he has raised for Remain and score them against the opposing view. So here we go.

Peace– The ‘outers’ would argue that whilst there has been peace within Europe (if you leave aside the small matter of the Balkans) this has been guaranteed more by NATO and the need to stand against the communist Eastern Bloc than anything else. Besides which European nations have been involved in more than 100 wars throughout the globe in the past 70 years. As for Islamic terrorism they would point out that this ‘security’ does not appear to be working too well at the moment, and with the arrival of millions of Muslim immigrants it is more, not less, likely that Islamic terrorism will increase within Europe. The almost inevitable defeat of Islamic State, will not kill of Islamist terrorism, it will only make it more resentful and more deadly.

 Score: Overall I think this is a win for those who want to stay in. European nations acting together are more likely to maintain peaceful relations and deal with Islamist terrorism.

This is a good start. He comes to a surprisingly balanced conclusion, although there is little serious discussion here of the scaremongering rhetoric of the Leave campaign in advancing their view. Given he will later go on to criticise what he calls “Project Fear”, it would have been interesting to know what he thinks about Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that we will suffer a “Paris-style attack” if we stay in the EU.

Prosperity – As regards prosperity they ridicule the Treasury figure of £4,300. The Treasury’s ‘report’ was as The Spectator observed ‘perhaps the most dishonest document ever produced by HM Treasury’. It dressed up GDP as household income in order to deceive people and avoided the real figure of £1,480. However even that is a meaningless figure. Chancellor George Osbourne keeps bringing forth Treasury projections for which he now has a 100% record. Of failure. As he admitted in 2010 the Treasury is not much good at economic forecasting.

Mr Robertson earlier complained about the lack of “facts and reasonable argument” in the debate. He derides the Treasury forecasts on the costs of leaving the EU. Of course, he is right that Treasury forecasts are often wrong – although George Osborne set up an independent Office for Budget Responsibility precisely to avoid the sense that Chancellors can influence economic forecasts.

However, there is a wider point to be made here. The Treasury’s argument may be flawed, but it is based on rigorous research and complex economic modelling. I’m not sure that appealing to the Spectator (a famously neutral right-wing rag formerly edited by one Boris Johnson) really gets to the heart of why the Treasury is definitely, absolutely wrong.

By contrast, what has the Leave campaign produced? Mr Robertson is about to tell us.

The Outers argue that Britain would be freed from EU bureaucracy and regulations and would be able to trade both with the EU and with the wider world and that we would be better off. Food and fuel would almost certainly be cheaper and the British government might actually be able to do something about saving the steel industry, if they wanted to.

We can already trade both with the EU and the wider world. A good example is David Cameron’s slavish attempts to build a closer trading relationship with China. Part of the reason we are able to do the business we are doing is because we are members of a powerful trading bloc.

“Food and fuel would almost certainly be cheaper.” This may be true. However, it would probably be because of the total removal of regulations on food safety and the use of pesticides. As Paddy Ashdown recently said, too, leaving the EU would probably signal the end of British agriculture.

As for steel, the British government actually argued against recent EU attempts to raise tariffs on Chinese steel dumping. In other words, they stopped the EU doing something that would have protected the British steel industry. Here’s a Daily Telegraph article on the subject (in case the BBC is too biased for your liking).

Furthermore there is the not insignificant fact that we pay £13 billion into the EU treasury each year and get £4.5 billion back (that is with our rebate – without it we would be paying £18 billion). Whilst there are risks in leaving, what seldom seems to be mentioned is that there are as many if not greater risks in staying. The Italian banks have a 360 million Euro black hole, the Greek economy is still devastated and Spain and Portugal are not much better.

For someone who claims to have sympathy with a progressive political agenda – certainly in economic terms – this is a particularly bizarre paragraph. The suggestion is that we should get back more than we pay in to a club where we are one of the wealthiest members. That would be redistribution away from the poorest nations to the richest. Is that really what Mr Robertson wants?

Some more facts. 79% of business activity in the UK is internal. 11% of our GDP is with the rest of the world (and increasing) only 10% with the EU (decreasing). No one believes that this trade would cease.

Actually, quite a big part of the Remain campaign’s case is that much of this trade would be under threat. We buy much more from the EU than we sell. We are not in a good negotiating position. And business is already suffering significantly due merely to the uncertainty of just having a referendum, let alone the result. 10% of our GDP is an enormous amount to create uncertainty over – it cannot be so easily dismissed.

The EU is a declining market – from 36% of the worlds GDP in 1973 (when we joined) to 17% now.   The EU determines who we trade with elsewhere in the world and on what terms, because individual countries are not allowed to do so. Note this simple point – for the sake of 10% of our business we have to apply 100% of EU rules to 100% of our business.

The bit in bold is correct, but that doesn’t make the bit in italics (my addition) right. Just because our businesses must abide by EU regulations does not mean we cannot trade with other countries on our own terms, and in fact we do so all the time. Look at China again – our government has brokered recent bilateral deals with the Chinese government on nuclear power plants, an Asian investment bank, long-stay visas for tourists, and much else. It is the purest nonsense to say that the EU “determines who we trade with elsewhere in the world”.

What about the three million jobs that are dependent on being in the EU? Daniel Hannan points out how deceitful that claim is: Over 3 million UK jobs are linked to our trade with the EU.’ The dishonesty of this claim is staggering. It is based on the same false idea that Britain would stop trading with the EU if it were not a member. Why? No one argues that we have to form a political union with, say, Brazil or Russia in order to do business with those countries. The economist from whose work the figure was taken, Dr Martin Weale, has said: ‘In many years of academic research, I cannot recall such a wilful distortion of the facts.’”

I agree that the 3 million figure is deceitful and should not be used, which puts me at odds with some members of my own party. However, the point of the claim is to demonstrate what is being put at risk by the possibility of leaving the EU. The onus is not on the Remain campaign to prove that every job would be lost; it is on the Leave campaign to prove that they have a plan to maintain our beneficial trade relationship with the EU when we leave. So far, they have completely failed to do that – suggesting at different times that we could be like Norway, or Iceland, or Canada, or even Albania, but never actually proposing a concrete plan.

Mr Robertson then praises this video, saying he “loved” it:

The statement that this man makes has no relevance to anything. It sounds very vaguely plausible but lacks any kind of detail. It’s a great example of how “soundbites” can trump “facts and reasonable argument”, wouldn’t you say?

Right, that’s enough about economics. Let’s do immigration!

Borders – This is probably a clear win for the Outers.   There is no way that Britain can control its own borders if it is within the EU.   The freedom to travel, live, work and study does not just apply to the Western European nations but now to the Central and Eastern European nations which make up a significant number of the 28 member countries. This has already had a significant impact on Britain and will continue to do so. The millions of immigrants/refugees are one factor but by far the biggest factor is the proposed entry of Turkey.   This has been hastened by the refugee crisis and the difficulties of Merkel and the German government, who’s commendable but ill thought out policy as resulted in some quick back tracking and some hasty promises to Turkey.

There are so many problems with this. The most obvious is that Britain can and does control its own borders. We chose to remain members of the EEC in 1975, knowing that that included free movement of labour, which has been part of the European settlement since the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Opening up our country to EU workers was therefore an entirely British decision.

Moreover, there is abundant evidence to suggest that EU immigration is a net benefit to the UK’s economy (Economist, Financial Times). It is the UK-born population that is a net cost! Also, forecasts that suggest a post-Brexit UK can succeed tend to rely heavily on high levels of immigration, so those who advocate Leave on the basis of “border control” must choose between prosperity and the “little Englander mentality” Mr Robertson earlier claimed to deprecate.

Moreover, new members of the EU are subject to transitional controls, and in any case, the scaremongering about swarms of Bulgarians and Romanians arriving on Britain’s shores has proved to be precisely that.

Finally, Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership since 1999, and in accession negotiations since 2005. In those 11 years, it has closed precisely one of the 35 chapters required to complete the accession process. The probability of Turkish accession in the next decade was very low even before the current crisis, and it is rapidly diminishing given the increasingly authoritarian actions of President Erdogan.

Influence: This seems a no brainer. You can’t influence something if you are not in it… But in reality our influence is very limited. We have been outvoted 40 times in the past five years and we only have 3.6% of EU Commissioners.   In fact we have voted 70 times against proposed EU legislation and we have lost 70 times. Some influence! David Cameron’s EU renegoiations got almost nothing. As regards influence we now have no vote and no voice in the vital World Trade Organisation – where instead we are represented as one 28th of the EU by a Swedish sociology lecturer!

Influence cannot be measured by the number of votes you win or lose; if it were, we should probably just give up on democracy entirely. Moreover, it depends very much on the nature of the vote as to whether the result means anything. Perhaps one of the reasons the UK might lose votes in the EU is because we’ve been trying to make 27 other countries do what we want from a position of arrogant weakness, rather than working with them for the good of the entire community.

Similarly, judging influence in the European Commission by percentages is very silly. It’s very simple and straightforward – each member state gets one commissioner.The UK’s current commissioner, Lord Hill, happens to be in charge of financial services and the capital markets union, one of the biggest and most important innovations in EU policy in decades – and one that will greatly favour the UK as the financial powerhouse of Europe (if we stay in).

If you are looking for proportionality of representation you could look, for instance, at the European Parliament, where the UK, a country with around 12% of the EU’s population, has just under 10% of the seats. It’s not perfect, but it allows small nations to have a slightly higher share of influence – again, something a progressive could, in theory, welcome.

If you seriously want to consider the UK’s influence in the EU, you should look at the success we have in securing the policies we want. And as it turns out – rather unsurprisingly, given we are one of the largest member states by both population and economy – we do pretty well at that. Mr Robertson could consider reading British Influence’s annual report on, erm, British influence, as a corrective.

Finally, the UK is a member of the WTO in its own right – as are all EU member states. The EU is also a member, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make our own representations, and neither does it mean that we are in any sense “represented” solely by an EU delegate. Neither is there anything wrong with being a Swedish sociology lecturer.

The EU is not just a market – it seeks to be a superstate and has increasing regulations that affect everything. Just think of this one (of thousands of examples) – the British parliament wanted to stop charging VAT on sanitary towels (as it was quite reasonably pointed out they are not a luxury item), but were told that they could not do so because it was against EU regulations.   This in the very week that David Cameron was negotiating for a new deal!

A single market involves the creation of new regulations. The way business operates continually changes – just think of the way digital technology is constantly shaking up the way we purchase and use goods and services. The test is whether the regulations are useful and worthwhile, and prevent harm to citizens and workers. I note that Mr Robertson makes no attempt whatsoever to interrogate this question.

As to the sanitary towels issue, he clearly hasn’t been paying too much attention. It was announced over a month ago that the UK government had secured a deal in the EU to allow VAT to be removed from tampons. It turns out that if the UK wants to achieve something constructive it can use its EU membership to convince other governments to act.

Human Rights – There are of course quirks in the European Convention on Human Rights but overall I think it is a good thing. But here is the surprising thing for many people. It is not a product of the EU but rather of the Council of Europe, which if Britain left the EU, we would still belong to, and therefore we would still be a signatory to the ECHR. That simple fact destroys the In argument.

We are through the looking glass. I can’t honestly think of a single time I have heard a Remain campaigner claim that this is a relevant point to the referendum. Mr Robertson is either confused or is deliberately spinning what is actually the Leave campaign’s poor understanding of European institutions.

A more interesting question, though, is whether the UK would remain a signatory to the ECHR if it left the EU. Given that the current UK government has already signalled its intention to scrap the ECHR, and Home Secretary Theresa May reiterated her approval for that policy only this week, perhaps encouraging the public to abandon EU membership is unwise if you wish to protect the UK’s proud historic commitment to human rights and justice. Just a thought.

Overall my score is 4:1 in favour of leaving. Before we come on to point six, which for me was the tipping point, let me mention a couple of other reasons that it is very difficult to support staying in the EU.

Yes, that seems fair. After all, the Remain side got a detailed hearing where their careful arguments were considered closely and attentively.

Democracy – Anyone who believes in democracy cannot vote to remain in the EU, at least not without shutting their eyes and crossing their fingers. The EU is fundamentally NOT a democratic institution. Indeed it is anti-democratic. The power in the EU lies not with the parliament but in the unelected EU Commissioners.   Twice in the past five years the EU has removed a democratically elected government (in Italy and Greece) and appointed Brussels-approved technocrats. Tony Benn got the situation spot on. Once you have rulers who you cannot get rid of then you no longer live in a democracy. The lack of democracy means that there is a lack of accountability and therefore greater opportunity for corruption.

The EU has no power to remove national governments. In no way is Mr Robertson’s representation of the politics of Italy and Greece aligned with reality. The people of those countries voted in elections and governments were formed as a result. There may have been turbulence and the formation of technocratic administrations – but those were due to internal upheaval both political and economic. If anything, in Greece’s case, the changes of government (particularly the election that gave Syriza a majority) were exactly the opposite of what the EU might have wanted.

Mr Robertson’s representation of the democratic stature of the EU is also a caricature. The EU is more democratic than the UK. I recommend that he read this post, and in particular the section entitled “How democratic is Europe?” for a thorough, if fluffy, upbraiding education.

His post also completely fails to examine the nature of “democracy” in the UK, and to question whether removing ourselves from the EU would actually give citizens any more power. I would have to carefully consider a Leave vote if the alternative on offer was a more democratic UK political settlement. However, that is just not on the table, and instead to vote Leave would, in my view, hand even more power to an even smaller group of power brokers and politicians who already benefit from an absurd, broken and sometimes non-existent constitution.

Corruption – Corruption is rife within the EU.

This is the only section of Mr Robertson’s post that holds water. He is entirely right to condemn some of the EU’s wasteful behaviour. The right thing to do in response is not to simply turn our backs on a flawed institution though; that would be to allow this kind of behaviour to go unchecked and unreformed.

What kind of nation wanting influence and the good of all does that? We should seek to be a positive influence in the EU to weed out corruption and ensure that money is spent well and wisely on good endeavours. That’s real influence, sorely needed and likely to be welcomed by other member states as well as the wider world. But perhaps we are too parochial – too “little Englander” – to see it.


So what’s left? Well, it turns out that there is one thing that really has got Mr Robertson’s back up:

Doesn’t President Obama’s intervention make a difference? Yes it does.   I was swaying towards ‘leave’; Obama’s intervention has tipped me over the edge. Here’s why.

Ok. This should be interesting.

His intervention is enormously significant – not because his points have any substance (as we shall see), but because of the fact that he made them at all. Such a direct intervention in another countries internal politics is almost unprecedented. Why did he do it? I was amazed at how many people were naïve enough to say that ‘he’s just expressing his opinion and everyone is entitled to do that’. No. He is the President of the USA and his concern is with the USA. He was not doing David Cameron a favour; he was looking after his own and his countries [sic] interests.

This is not our country’s “internal politics”. This is our country’s decision to make on our membership of an external, supranational institution that carries influence and power far beyond its borders. It is an institution that is at the very heart of the political and economic world. Mr Robertson has some nerve to talk about naivety when in the very same paragraph he’s claiming that the UK’s membership of the EU is merely an “internal” matter.

As for looking after his own and his country’s interests: that is his job. David Cameron has made many statements about other countries in the past. Is Mr Robertson seriously suggesting that it is not the job of Prime Ministers and Presidents to use their office to influence the course of international political affairs? Are we to think that Cameron and Obama should keep their mouths shut when their counterparts gas their own people, imprison journalists and political dissidents, start wars or abolish elections?

And anyway, can’t two countries’ interests align? It’s entirely possible that two mature democracies on either side of the Atlantic have a mutual interest in Britain maintaining its position.

There are two reasons why it is important to America that Britain remains in the EU. Firstly we are America’s voice in the EU. America says ‘jump’, and we ask ‘how high?’. The ‘special’ relationship has become a subservient one. Obama came as the Master to threaten us and tell us what to do.

This is just conjecture based on no “facts and reasonable argument” at all. Where is the proof that we are doing the US’ bidding in the EU? Mr Robertson has just claimed that Obama only cares about his own affairs. Well, if so, why is he supporting our membership of a club that helps to maintain London’s financial supremacy? If London were to lose its competitive advantage, a US city like New York might well be a beneficiary.

Secondly Obama was representing the interests of corporate America. Perhaps because he believes that is best for his country and the world. Perhaps because corporate America funds corporate politics in the US, and Obama owes them.  So the question is why would corporate America want Britain to stay in the EU? It all has to do with TTIP. Obama wants it passed, ASAP, so that it can become his legacy. He made this quite clear.

More conjecture. Lots of “perhaps”. This is the opposite of illuminating.

I am astonished that so few of our media picked up on the main issue here.  They have presented it as though we already have a trade agreement with the US (at least through the EU) and they regard President Obama’s threat as somehow substantial. Anyone reading the papers or watching the BBC would think, ‘oh no, the Americans will withdraw from trading with us and we will all be worse off’.   The only problem is that we currently don’t have a trade agreement with the US, and we NEVER have! And yet trade goes on. We have lasted 60 years without one – and we will continue to trade without one. If we are at the back of the queue for a TTIP style agreement, so what?

This isn’t how it’s been presented at all. The point of President Obama’s comments is precisely to address the Leave campaign’s claim. The Leave campaign claims that should we leave the EU, the UK will be able to do lots of juicy trade deals with the rest of the world in ten minutes flat, no trouble at all, Bob’s your uncle and so on.

This is yet another reason why Obama is qualified to comment, by the way. He is the leader of the world’s largest economy, and the one that the Leave campaign would most like us to do business with. The point Obama is making is that it is not within the UK’s power to leave the EU and then force everyone else to make a deal with them.

For the hard of thinking: it is the Leave campaign that claims trade agreements are vital and that the UK could forge one with major economies like the US quickly after leaving the EU. Obama’s intervention is powerful because it cuts the Leave campaign’s legs from under it.

[TTIP] is clearly very important to [Obama] – and to the American political and economic establishment? Why?

What is TTIP? It is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which cuts tariffs and regulatory barriers between the US and Europe. Sounds good? Think again… This is big business in league with big government (whom they pay for – especially in the US) trying to circumvent democracy and the rule of law…

<long excerpt from Independent article>

TTIP is a difficult issue. That’s why it’s already been in negotiations for more than five years, and why it is far from concluded. But Mr Robertson’s objections to it, on the basis of the Independent article he quotes at length, do not chime with the rest of his argument.

Earlier on, you’ll remember (possibly), he claimed that one of the main problems with the EU was how its regulations restricted the UK economy and foisted all sorts of nasty rules on British businesses.

However, the vast majority of the points made in the Independent article he quotes are warning precisely the opposite: that EU regulations on things like public services, food safety, environmental safety and workers’ rights could be undermined, putting citizens at risk and reducing the quality of goods and services. He can’t have it both ways: either EU regulations are too onerous or they’re so great that we should defend them from the villainous Americans at all costs.

But it’s all a load of rubbish anyway. TTIP is one of the most misunderstood negotiations in history, partly because people tend to retweet and repost hysterical memes about dry economic/political talks rather than bothering to look at the detail. This leaflet from the EU Commission is a good place to start if you actually want to understand what TTIP does and why it is a good idea.

Mr Robertson finishes this section with a final blast:

This is the issue. We don’t get to vote on TTIP. We can’t vote on it. And in the EU our elected politicians can’t vote on it. Obama came here, at the behest of his corporate paymasters, to try and save an agreement which will bypass democratic governments and hand even more power and wealth to the big corporations.

Not a single word of this is correct. As above, if anything, President Obama came here to correct a false claim being made by the Leave campaign.

We in the UK have voted on the principle of TTIP by electing successive governments which were both committed to the EU, to a strong relationship with the US, and to free trade in general. What’s more:

  • EU member states are consulted at every stage of TTIP negotiations.
  • Once the final TTIP text is ready, it will be subject to all 28 member states’ governments and a public consultation.
  • It will then be voted on by both member states’ governments and the EU Parliament before it can be adopted.

When you are negotiating something as big as a trade agreement between two enormous economies, you don’t have votes every five minutes. But nonetheless, the TTIP process is pretty transparent. If Mr Robertson wanted to, he could read all sorts of interesting information, including negotiating texts and factsheets, here.


So why did I write nearly 6,000 words on Mr Robertson’s blog post? 

Because when someone claims at the top of such an article that they are committed to trying to find out the “facts and reasonable arguments” on an issue, and then proceeds to advocate leaving the EU on the basis of a mixture of myths and inaccuracies, I cannot and should not stay silent.

There is, in fact, a case to be made for leaving the EU, as I suggested above. Mr Robertson’s warning over the gradual decrease in British democracy and the rise of EU technocrats has some merit. There would have been a real chance for change had the Leave campaign focused on the former of those points, and attempted to attract those of us who are committed to democracy.

But we are very far from that. The Leave campaign is not even committed to the truth.


POSTSCRIPT: I didn’t intend to address fully the political discussion at the end of Mr Robertson’s article. But there is one bit I must object to:

The Lib-Dems – are of course pro-EU. It is an article of faith for them – even when the EU is going in such an anti-liberal, undemocratic direction.   But wait. There is a real shock here. One of my political heroes, Lord David Owen, founder member of the SDP, Europhile has announced that he is an Outer! David Owen Wants Out of the EU

That is like Nicola Sturgeon announcing that she wants Scotland to remain in the UK! IF David Owen wants out of the EU, we need to ask why!

I’ve discussed why the “anti-liberal, undemocratic” descriptor is so much nonsense. But here, yet again, Mr Robertson fails to do some basic fact-checking. David Owen was never a Liberal Democrat. He objected to the creation of the party and chose instead to carry on as leader of the SDP, before winding up as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords. He’s since disgraced himself many times over, not least by campaigning against AV in the 2011 referendum.

Yep – it’s another sad failure to seek out and understand the facts.

 

Britain’s doomed NHS is only a symptom of a deeper malaise

My Facebook timeline has, for weeks, been furious at Jeremy Hunt. All this might tell you is that I am friends with the type of people who feel comfortable expressing extreme anger – sometimes hatred – towards politicians. They are mostly middle class, soft left voters, many of whom work in the public sector or have relatives who do so. Several of them work in the NHS, and a couple of them are the very junior doctors at the centre of the maelstrom engulfing the UK’s Health Secretary, who has confirmed his place in the rhyming slang lexicon.

I don’t really intend to add to the debate over the junior doctors’ contract. jeremy_hunt_visiting_the_kaiser_permanente_center_for_total_health_700_second_st_washington_usa-3june2013Hunt is a politician who was shown to be incompetent and cowardly during the BSkyB scandal that, in another age, would certainly have led to resignation and disgrace. It is no surprise that he has proven incapable of managing extremely delicate negotiations and even of using appropriate rhetoric in his current role.

However, the role he currently has is also very definitely a poisoned chalice. Simon Jenkins’ Guardian column last week, although veering into swivel-eyed nonsense towards the end, was sharp on the public’s unthinking adoration of the NHS. Political parties in the UK are acutely aware of the “sacred cow” status that our health system enjoys. The Conservatives introduced the idea of a ring-fenced NHS budget in 2010 for precisely this reason. But that adoration is only one of the reasons why the NHS is doomed.

The NHS is badly out of date. It is a gargantuan, centralised, socialist system in a splintering nation populated largely by choice-craving, wealthy, individualistic and indolent capitalists. The junior doctor row is ironic chiefly because it is part of a government attempt to placate citizens by honouring a manifesto commitment to seven day services. We want more from our public services, but not at our own cost.

The conditions for such a system to be politically feasible could only have existed in the aftermath of a shared disaster so awful as to create a newly defining sense of collective identity for the nation that would linger for several decades. It’s no surprise, then, that it was created in 1946, albeit in a tragically different form than that proposed in the Beveridge Report.

There are things that could possibly be done to save the NHS aside from throwing more money at it. Andrew Lansley’s ill-fated reorganisation during the coalition government hinted at some of these: the need to reduce political intervention and restore local oversight, for example. However, it also failed on many measures. For one, it put huge amounts of money in the hands of GPs, a producer interest group. For another, it substantially failed to force NHS institutions to work in an integrated way with the local councils responsible for commissioning social care.

That last point hints at the real problem facing the NHS. Ultimately, its slow decay is only a visible symptom of a deeper malaise. And that malaise stems from a broken political system.hqdefault The Conservatives knew that the NHS was their weakness back in 2010, hence their much-mocked campaign slogan: “I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS.” Yet now, the Health Secretary can wage war with the doctors’ union and incur the wrath of the vast majority of voters without any real political damage being done. The only thing that has really changed is the state of our politics.

Amol Rajan, the editor of the Independent, has written eloquently this week about how concerned we should be about the state of Britain’s democracy. It is a subject I have also touched on several times (here, here and here, for example). But Rajan does it better. In a tour de force finale, he invokes the “generation of men and women” who “often died young” in the name of power to the people, and concludes:

Barely two generations on, we are forfeiting [democracy] by sheer indolence, sleepwalking into the very tyranny from which they thought, and prayed, they had delivered us.

The anger on my Facebook timeline shows that politics can still rouse strong feelings in ordinary voters. In the case of the junior doctor contract, anger is arguably justified, although I wouldn’t personally consider the BMA the saintly trade union that others seem to. But none of this changes my view: anger is welcome, but it would be better directed not at the symptoms but at the failing political system that created politicians like Jeremy Hunt and public services like the NHS.

Osborne’s Budget is another nail in the coffin for comprehensive and high quality public services

People have different ideas on what makes public services viable. If you take the purpose of services such as the NHS to be meeting the needs of the population, then it is almost inevitable that, at times, they will run at a deficit, as government funding lags demand. This is certainly true of many NHS Trusts at the present time; financial difficulty is not a proxy for the quality of services being delivered.

The corollary in the private sector is that super profits are no indication of a quality service either. It is often assumed that the more profit a company makes, the better the service or product that it delivers or makes – but this is lazy thinking. Key public services operate based on need, regardless of the profitability or convenience of the service user; private companies have no such restriction, and can pick and choose their market based on the path of least resistance.

A consequence of this difference is that public services need staffing levels that match the amount of need – at all times. This is incredibly difficult to achieve. If we think of health, especially, there are some trends you can predict, such as increased incidence of colds and flu in the winter months, but there will always be significant variation from month to month and year to year.

One way to deal with this is through temporary staff, but it’s difficult to get enough people in that way, and it’s hard to obtain that kind of flexibility without taking a hit on quality, which is why hospitals increasingly turn to private agencies to plug the gaps. This, in turn, leads Ministers to panic over what they see as an excessive reliance on temporary agencies. Yet this expense is a symptom, not the ultimate cause. The ultimate cause – whether in the NHS or in other parts of the public sector, including social care, schools and social work – is a chronic recruitment shortage.

Politically it’s undesirable for Ministers to recognise this fact. But a fact it is. Partly, it’s due to ineffective recruitment programmes, which often require a financial commitment on the part of the student. But a lot of it is also due to dismal retention rates. Take teachers, for example: reports in the past 18 months suggest that two-fifths of teachers leave the profession within five years.

Why is it so difficult to keep public sector workers in their posts? Because the work is hard, the pay is low, and the pressure placed upon you by the government is well nigh unbearable. The workload experienced by state school teachers is well-documented, but nowhere is the stress of the public sector more obvious than in social work. Here is a profession which requires you to work closely in some really difficult, knotty situations: where hard cases lead to unfair dismissals and obscenely large compensation payouts. As soon as you attempt to intervene, you are accused of nanny statism. And now the government is moving to stigmatise the profession further by criminalising service failure – threatening to throw ordinary social workers, teachers and councillors in jail for wilful neglect. Who would want to have to find the balance between these two extremes?

So even before Wednesday’s Budget we had the makings of a perfect storm on public sector recruitment: an existing shortage, a crunch in recruitment, and terrible retention rates. I could also talk about the effect of the government’s attempts to shut down immigration routes, which are also highly relevant. But the Budget adds to this storm in two highly significant ways.

The first is the “national living wage”. Amid the furore over the terminology and the impact on business, it’s been little noted that one of the main sectors most affected by a higher minimum wage will be social care. Of course, most providers of social care are private businesses, but they are paid by the public sector, and the providers find it incredibly difficult to find and retain good staff. Social care services spend about 60% of their entire budget on staff, so an above-inflation increase to the minimum wage creates huge cost pressures. And this is against a backdrop of continuing punitive cuts on local government – the purchaser of such services – which has meant a long-term freeze on the fees paid to providers. It’s entirely possible that smaller social care providers will be forced out of the market as a result of this Budget, at a time when demand for such services is inexorably rising. Sooner or later, the system is going to fail, we will see more incidents of bad care or even abuse, and the victims will be vulnerable elderly people.

The second, which is more widespread, is the decision to cap public sector pay rises at 1% for the next four years. This is an outrageous decision that, at a stroke, makes recruitment far more difficult. Ok, at the moment inflation is running low enough that 1% would actually be a real terms pay increase; but compare that to average weekly earnings to April 2015, which rose at a rate of 2.7%. It’s important to remember that the public sector has to compete with the private sector for staff: what’s the incentive for an energetic, ambitious, skilled young person to go into teaching or care or nursing here? At some point, “vocation” is not sufficient to bridge these gaps – and the situation we’re in suggests we reached that point some time ago, so we don’t need to widen the gap further.

So what’s the result of all of this? It seems clear that the current government has taken the decision that vital public services can be allowed slowly to dwindle and die, to be replaced by a patchwork of private sector providers motivated by profit. The contradictory motives and ethe involved in this approach will eventually be unsustainable.

It would take a huge commitment of political and financial capital to turn this listing ship around.


CORRECTION: This article previously mentioned a claim by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers that 40% of newly qualified teachers were not in teaching after a year. This has been comprehensively debunked, for example here, so I have removed the reference. I’m grateful to Damian Counsell for pointing out the error.

A Few Reminders about Labour and NHS Spending

Today the Tories have made my previous blog post on the NHS slightly obsolete, by officially pledging to find the extra £8 billion per year the NHS says is required to safeguard the service by 2020. Obviously there are some problems with the practicalities of that pledge. You can read about those anywhere you like: here, for example.

It’s clear to me that Labour should really have nothing to say on this though. There are several reasons for that:

1. Labour still hasn’t taken responsibility for the party’s contribution to the state of the UK’s economy in 2010. That doesn’t mean I buy into the narrative the Tories (and the Lib Dems to an extent) have painted, that says “forget the enormous global financial crisis- it was all Gordon Brown’s fault”. But it is true to say that the Labour government was running deficits before the crash, and stimulating unsustainable levels of consumer debt (particularly around the property market), and it’s also true to say they were warned – many times – by people who foresaw what was to come. Here’s an example, from 2003:

On the housing market, is not the brutal truth that with investment, exports and manufacturing output stagnating or falling, the growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level?

In case you’re wondering who asked that – it was Vince Cable, in the House of Commons, asking the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

2. Labour planned not to protect NHS funding in 2010. This is a key point, and something that is seemingly entirely forgotten. The Lib Dems took the same view, in fact; it was only the Tories that committed to real-terms increases in NHS funding – something that has been delivered.

It is therefore entirely disingenuous and wrong of Labour to scaremonger about the level of funding the NHS is likely to receive under a Tory-led government. To scaremonger, for example, by putting up posters like the one below. Bear in mind that this is the party that has been so keen to take the moral high ground over “negative campaigning”. The hypocrisy is staggering.

3. Labour still hasn’t committed to giving the NHS the funding it needs to survive. Under Labour’s plans the NHS would get only an extra £2.5 billion a year, well short of what the NHS itself says it needs. Today they are decrying the Tories’ pledge as “fantasy funding”. Yet only a couple of weeks ago, their main political goal was to get the Prime Minister to rule out various tax increases – something that rather blew up in Ed Miliband’s face at the final PMQs of the Parliament, and meant Ed Balls had to rule out NI increases similarly hastily.

If you want to talk about fantasy funding, maybe don’t waste time on tactical manoeuvres that will narrow down the options available to any government to raise revenue – revenue that needs to be put into vital public services such as the NHS.

Only the Lib Dems are listening to the NHS

Most of the political debate around the NHS, certainly in the Leaders’ Debate on Thursday night, has focused on who should deliver NHS services. In particular, the anti-austerity parties, as well as the Labour Party, are extremely sceptical about what they call “privatisation” – the provision of NHS services by private companies.

This is ironic, as the NHS itself has made its position very clear. Before Christmas, a document called the Five Year Forward View (FYFV) was published. This was really a manifesto for the future of the NHS – written by senior management figures within NHS England, the central body that controls much of the NHS’ commissioning and funding decisions, and based upon the collective and specialist knowledge of the NHS itself. The NHS FYFV doesn’t talk much about “privatisation”. Instead, it focuses on what are really the biggest challenges for the NHS. To summarise:

  • The NHS needs to focus much more on prevention and public health – this is aimed at stopping a sharply rising burden of avoidable illness
  • The NHS needs to move towards new models of integrated care – at the moment there’s a big divide in lots of places between GP surgeries and hospitals, between hospitals and care homes, and between physical and mental health

The FYFV also made it clear that without making the right sort of changes, and assuming funding levels stay broadly as they are over the next five years, the NHS will be under-funded to the tune of around £30 billion by 2020. Given the entire NHS budget currently stands at around £100 billion, that constitutes what some might call an existential threat. The document sets out various ways to meet that challenge. In short, NHS England thinks that with the right service reform and the introduction of these new models of care, it can make efficiency gains representing about £22 billion of the shortfall.

But that still leaves £8 billion of extra funding. And this is where the political parties come in. They are the ones who make the decisions about where tax is spent on our public services. They have a choice as to whether they will listen to the NHS itself – which is effectively lobbying them to put in this extra funding – or whether they will prioritise other public services, or indeed whether they will simply spend less overall and give people more tax cuts instead.

This graph shows how the parties are planning to fund the NHS over the next five years:

(h/t Paul Valentine @iampav)

As you can see, only one of the major parties has actually listened to the NHS itself when it comes to the vital funding needed to maintain “a comprehensive taxfunded NHS”.

If you believe in the value of such an NHS – one that doesn’t need to go cap in hand to private companies to provide vital services, or force people to rely on private medical insurance, or introduce new or increased charges for GP appointments or minor surgical treatment or prescriptions – then there’s only one choice at this election. The Liberal Democrats are the only party that truly wants to protect the NHS.