Thursday 23 February 2017

Immigration: who's really in control?

I'm not so sure that concern over immigration was the over-riding motive for  Leave voters in the UK referendum on membership of the EU, but it was clearly important.  Certainly, the Leave campaigners thought so, as they kept banging on about "taking back control" and, in particular "control of our borders"

However, like so many of the Leavers' claims, that the EU is entirely or even mainly responsible for immigration into the UK does not stand up to scrutiny.

Net migration into the UK form other pats of the EU is estimated to have been 190 000 (see here)in 2016  A similar number comes from the rest of the world, over which, with the exception of refugees and asylum seekers, for whom we have other international treaty obligations, the sovereign British government has total control.

Of those from the rest of the world,  nearly half (actually 47%) are students. (see again above link)  For anyone thinking rationally it is absolutely crazy to try to reduce the number of these (though our sovereign government is doing so).  They bring desperately needed foreign currencies in fees and for living expenses, they keep our world class universities in funds, and by and large they gain a favourable impression of the UK which increases our international standing.

An additional 21% of this group have definite job offers, and where our NHS and care services would be without them Lord only knows.

Now to look at immigration from the rest of the EU.

There is much concern about the influx of job-seekers from  the Eastern European countries which joined the EU in 2004.   But EU reputations permitted transnational restrictions on immigrants from these countries for up to seven years. The sovereign governments of Germany and Austria imposed the restriction for the full seven years, the sovereign government of France for five years,  others for shorter periods.  Only the sovereign governments of the UK, Ireland and Sweden imposed no restrictions.

So for better or for worse, the profusion of Polish plumbers et al  was the direct responsibility of the UK government, not the EU.

For those who would dismiss these transitional restrictions, or lack of them, as history, there remain in force at least three EU provisions which could be used to regulate migration from other EU counties should the sovereign governments so require.

A letter from a John Bloomfield to the Guardian reminds us that: Article 48 [of the original Treaty of Rome]states that “freedom of movement for workers shall entail the right (a) to accept offers of employment actually made; (b) to move freely within the territory of member states for this purpose.” Article 49 calls for “the achievement of a balance between supply and demand in the employment market in such a way as to avoid serious threats to the standard of living and level of employment in the various regions and industries”. 

The same link shows a letter from a Pat Whitaker which points out that : Since 2004, European Union law has allowed governments to control movements of EU citizens as follows: allow EU citizens to freely circulate only for three months and then require them (should they want to stay longer) to show they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student or have sufficient resources (pension, savings) to support themselves and comprehensive sickness insurance eg a valid European health insurance card enabling the NHS to claim back the cost of treatment or have private health insurance. The UK is one of the few governments that has not implemented this.(my emphasis.)

And a week or so later a letter from a David Jones tell us that:   Article 45 of the Lisbon treaty states that the right to freedom of movement of workers is subject to limitations justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health. Article 46(d) provides for the achievement of a balance supply and demand of labour. 

- and asks: Why can’t these clauses be the basis of an agreement on controlled migration that does not throw out the baby with the bathwater of Brexit? 

Why not indeed?

The blame for the distortion of the EU's influence over our immigration rules lies not just with he Leave campaigners.  Regrettably politicians of all stripes, both here and in the rest of Europe, have for decades used the EU  in its manifestation as "Brussels Bureaucrats" as a scapegoat for any policies which some of their electorates found unpopular.  So our vote to leave is to some extent the result, not just  of distortions in the campaign itself, but of several decades of political cowardice.

Mrs May's insistence, however, that immigration rules should take priority over access to the customs union and single market, is completely misguided and difficult to understand.  I hope someone will make this clear in the House of Lords debates.

Friday 17 February 2017

Business rates: some unlevel playingfields

I've just become aware that NHS hospitals have to pay business rates.  A current revaluation of property values means that the worst affected, Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, will find its rates bill more than double to £6.9m a year.

Private hospitals also pay business rates, but most of them are registered charities, so they get an 80% reduction.

Apparently local authority schools also pay business rates.  But Academies, would you believe, are also regard as charities and so they too  get an 80% reduction.  It's worth noting that some Academies pay their heads fancy salaries well over £100 000 a year, and one Multi Academy Trust (MAT) with 28 schools pays its CEO a not very charitable-sounding £370 000 a year.(see here)

I suppose Eton gets an 80% reduction too, along with all the other posh public schools

You couldn't make it up.

Postscript: (added 21st February)

John Thow has started a petition on this topic with respect to the NHS (see third comment below.)  You can access it directly at

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Co-op Bank goes down, but who is to blame?

I'm sad that the Co-op Bank, with which I've had an account for may years, is giving up in its present form and seeking a buyer.

Many people, when they read of its demise, will immediately think of, and blame, its inadequate former chairman, the Non-conformist  minister Paul  Flowers, who was later found to have drug problems and so nicknamed Crystal Methodist.  It is easy to conclude that mutual ownership is not viable for serious businesses as amateurs on the board are not up to the job.

But it is universally agreed that the Co-op Bank's troubles began with the takeover of the Britannia Building Society in 2009.  True the Co-op was probably over-ambitious, but it is too easy to forget that the take-over was given the green light by the privately owned giant  accountancy firm KPMG.  Later, too late for the Co-op to back out, a "black hole" discovered in the Britannia's accounts.

Presumably a fully professional board would have put their trust in the mighty KPMG just as the amateurs did.

There was a similar piece of amazing incompetence from an established part of the professional "finance" industry when the Icelandic banking system ran into trouble. Up to a month before the collapse Iceland's sovereign debt was given A ratings by all four of the major credit rating agencies. Several UK local authorities which had bought Icelandic bonds in good faith were caught out (and, I think, were actually compensated by the UK government - see here).

We need to ask whether the ratings of these agencies are really meaningful and whether the accountancy industry, concentrated as it is on the "big four" (KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and E&Y) is really fit for purpose.

A final point in favour of the Co-op Bank is that, when in difficulties, it rescued itself without calling on public funds, unlike  the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group, both of which needed to be bailed out with taxpayers' money.

So there are no grounds for  Co-op Bank's unfortunate setback to be used as evidence for a loss of confidence  in co-operative and mutual ownership

Thursday 9 February 2017

What if. . .it were a Labour government?

The UK is in the bizarre position of having a government pursuing what today's Guardian describes as "as profoundly mistaken a decision as any that the UK parliament  has taken in the post-war era,"* yet that same government is riding high in the polls and winning huge majorities in the Commons, with three quarters or more of the official opposition voting for its Alice in Wonderland policies.

I can't help wondering what the political atmosphere would be like if it were a Labour government which had:
  • called a referendum which was important to its own members on the "lunatic left" but not among the top  priories of the electorate at large;
  • failed to include in the legislation for the referendum any rules to ensure an honest campaign or the usual threshold higher than a simple majority for a decision  on a constitutional matter to be valid:
  • tried desperately to avoid any parliamentary involvement  of the implementation of the result, which most experts (and indeed the majority of MPs) regarded as likely to be highly damaging  both to Britain's economy and our international reputation;
  • seen its supporting newspapers attack the senior judiciary as "enemies of the people";
  • caused important sections to the finance industry, a big cash-cow for the Treasury, to relocate in other countries, with more predicted to follow;
  • described any critics of its activities as  "enemies of democracy";
  • caused a 12% depreciation of the value of the pound, with probably more to follow;
  • invited what most Conservatives regarded as a "rogue leader" (Fidel Castro of Cuba,  perhaps, or Salvador Allende of Chile) on a state visit;
  • had the Speaker of the House of Commons, one of its own, publicly oppose this action;
  • had its prime-minister publicly snubbed by fellow European leaders;
  • endangered the peace settlement in Ireland;
  • caused the potential break-up of the UK itself;
  • and all the above with the NHS and care system  in crisis: a critical housing shortage, and the young unable to afford to buy what was available; the government's "fixing " of the public finances, promised in the first parliament, postponed to a third: deplorably low productivity; and a record and continuing deficit on the balance of external payments. 
Actually, for once history can give us a clue.  Way back in the 1960s Harold Wilson's Labour government seemed to have its back to the wall, although its troubles could reasonably be described as "a little local difficulty" compared with the present super-omnishambles.

In 1967 Labour had devalued the pound from $2.80 to $2.40 (just over 14% - it's now down to $1.25: so much for the "strength" of the British economy), Wilson was upsetting the Americans by refusing to join in the Vietnam War and there were a few strikes.  Two newspaper barons, Hugh Cudlipp  and Cecil King, arranged  a meeting with Lord Mountbatten, a  relative of the royal family and mentor of Prince Charles, and others, to suggest that chaos was round the corner, the government was about to disintegrate  and that:

[t]he people would be looking to somebody like Lord Mountbatten as the titular head of a new administration, somebody renowned as a leader of men, who would be capable, backed by the best brains and administrators in the land, to restore public confidence. (See here for further and better particulars)

To his credit Mountbatten recognised this as treason and walked away.  

 I am not suggesting  a similar attempt at a coup today, or that the current press barons might be capable of organising one.  Even if our MPs are too supine to do their duty we must put up with them until the end of the parliament.

But the incident does illustrate the lengths "the establishment" are prepared to go to frustrate a left wing government compared to the sycophantic support of the present one, seemingly in hock to its "loony right," however demonstrably misguided and damaging their policies.

*  Makes a change from my favoured "biggest cock-up since Lord North lost the American colonies over an argument about a tax on tea."

Thursday 2 February 2017

Brexit: Britain betrayed

In our history we've had a Short Parliament, a Long Parliament and a Rump Parliament.   I suspect future historians will dub this one the Pathetic Parliament.  They have:

  • set up a referendum not in the interests of the nation but to help one political party try to solve a domestic problem;
  • failed to provide for a supermajority and other safeguards , such as would be normal in any civic organisation which wished to change its constitution:
  • allowed an advisory referendum with a small majority of those who voted to be translated into "the will of the people";
  • granted the government the right to implement this result despite the majority of them believing that this will  be damaging to their constituents and the country as a whole:
  • amazingly, voted for this before seeing the customary White Paper setting out the Government's plans
Our MPs cannot argue  that they were unaware of their right and responsibility not to leave the EU.  The philosopher A C Grayling wrote to each one of them individually setting out the case, my friend John Cole set it out in  the lead letter in  the Observer on Sunday (link now found); there's a similar one from me in the January edition of Prospect; and Polly Toynbee had a vigorous article on the subject in the Guardian the day before the debate.

Best of all is Ken Clarke's excellent speech in the Commons on the first day of the debate

Most Members, I trust, are familiar with Burke’s address to the electors of Bristol. I have always firmly believed that every MP should vote on an issue of this importance according to their view of the best national interest. I never quote Burke, but I shall paraphrase him. He said to his constituents, “If I no longer give you the benefit of my judgment and simply follow your orders, I am not serving you; I am betraying you.” I personally shall be voting with my conscience content, and when we see what unfolds hereafter as we leave the European Union, I hope that the consciences of other Members of Parliament will remain equally content.

It is invigorating to read the whole speech, available at:

Instead our MPs cravenly succumbed to the loudness of the shouting of the Brexiteers and voted for something which they believe will harm both our country and the people they were elected to serve.  Shame on them.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Mrs May the weathervane

 Apparently when President Trump signed his executive order to ban refugee, among others, from seven predominantly Muslim countries  from entering the US Mrs May was on an aeroplane, tired and without time to think.  So her first public pronouncement was a metaphorical  shrug of the shoulders:  The US policy on refugees is a matter for the US and nothing  to do with us.

As a former Home Secretary she should have known, and if she didn't one of her multitude of advisers on the aeroplane should have told her, that the 1951 Refugee Convention is a United Nations International Convention, subscribed to at the time by 145 countries, including the US and UK, and in which both British and American lawyers were  involved in the drafting.  It is part of international law, and we believe in the Rule of Law.  Deviations from international law are not "nothing to do with us" but something on which the UK should strive to uphold, even if the the deviations are by the highest and the mightiest.

Of course in view of the international and national outrage provoked by President Trumps improvident action Mrs May has been quick to change her tune (though Boris Johnson's reaction that it's all right really because his special relationship has allowed an exemption for Britons with dual nationality is pathetic). But Mrs May's  initial response makes it clear that she is seriously lacking in moral compass.  Now that the most powerful country in the world is in the hands of a maverick, leaders with strong moral compasses are desperately needed.

It is possible that the Trump regime may not be as disastrous for liberal values as his campaign rhetoric predicts.  If so, as the last  ten days or so indicate, that will not be through any lack of determination by Mr Trump but through the robustness of the American Constitution.  This entrenches the principle of "Separation of Powers."  The Executive (the President and administration), the Legislature (Houses of Congress) and the Judiciary  are independent and act as checks and balances on each other.

With a liberal president in office this can be a cause for frustration, and  with Congress in the hands of the Republicans many of President Obama's progressive reforms were either seriously diluted or blocked altogether.  However, although he Republicans still have a majority in both Houses of Congress, many of the individual Republicans are far from Trump supporters, and may well provide the necessary checks, as indeed a decision of a Federal Judge that the travel bans are illegal already has.  The rights of individual states are also well entrenched by the Constitution

For years we British have boasted on the advantages that the flexibility of our "unwritten" constitution, with any necessary checks and balances provided by conventions, gentlemen's agreements and our innate predilection for "fair play"  Clearly these three can no longer be relied on, so we desperately need a written constitution, not least to entrench the rights of the devolved administrations and local government.

Alas fundamental issues such as this will be placed on the back-burner whilst the political establishment veers with the wind whilst haggling over an issue most of them believe shouldn't happen.