Not too late for an informed debate on EU membership

This article first appeared in ‘The Business’ supplement to The Lincolnshire Echo, June 2016.

IMG_0950The European Union has changed beyond all recognition from the economic community Britain joined in 1973. It is now an economic and political union with a common foreign and security policy, its own parliament, a common currency and open borders which extend across large parts of its twenty-eight member states. For those campaigning for Britain to leave, and even amongst some of those who would like to remain, there is a feeling that the so-called ‘European project’ has moved forward at a dizzying pace, driven by forces over which we have little control.

On the other hand the EU is very much the product of the community which Britain was eager to join in the 1970s. The shape of the community which Britain joined was set out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which promised to ‘lay the foundations for an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.’ For forty years successive British governments have signed treaties which have expanded the remit of the EU. At the same time, far from being bounced into ever closer union, Britain has a consistently negotiated opt-outs from those aspects which it does not support. Margaret Thatcher successfully negotiated a rebate on Britain’s contributions and opted out of the workers’ rights included in the Maastricht Treaty. Britain is not a member of the Eurozone or part of the Schengen area which has removed border controls, while David Cameron has, amongst other things, negotiated Britain’s exclusion from the founding principle of ‘ever closer union’.

Of course the debate about Britain’s membership of the EU is not simply an argument about the past. As economic uncertainty has spread across the continent, some argue that EU membership is an unnecessary drain on Britain’s resources. The inconvenient truth for the ‘remain’ campaign is that Britain is a net contributor to the EU. While British membership does not cost anywhere near the £350m a week which has been claimed, Britain does pay more into the EU than it gets out.

However, this has not always been the case. Britain was the poor man of Europe when it joined the European community. As a booming economy it now contributes towards the development of other states. While some will argue that there are real benefits to promoting economic prosperity across Europe, creating stability and markets for British goods, those opposed to the redistribution of wealth at home are unlikely to support it abroad. It is also important to remember that in some areas, Britain still benefits considerably from EU funding. In agriculture and research and development, for example, EU funding to the UK exceeds the EU average.

Less easy to calculate than the cost of membership are the economic benefits of being part of the largest trading bloc in the world. The EU is Britain’s most significant trading partner. The ‘leave’ campaign argue that as the fourth largest economy in the world, Britain is more than capable of standing on its own two feet. However, they are unclear about where Britain’s economic future lies. Exit would certainly mean considerable economic uncertainty. Britain would be forced to negotiate a trade deal with the EU which may take considerable time and in doing so would still be required to retain many EU regulations in order to maintain trade relations.

Polls indicate that the majority of the public, including those who think Britain should leave, accept there will be an economic cost to exit. Whether this is a price worth paying may depend on how one feels about other aspects of the EU. At the centre of this debate is an argument about sovereignty or control.

It is often claimed that membership of the EU means that Britain has lost control of its borders. Although this is not the case, the free movement of labour has seen an influx of foreign workers into the UK. Businesses, including Lincolnshire farmers, have benefited considerably from this, but immigration has also created tensions in communities where some feel it has placed pressure on local services.

There is also a widespread view that the EU is run by unelected bureaucrats who make decisions which are somehow imposed on the member states. The reality, of course, is more complex. The EU is an institution comprised of a large number of independent states and membership inevitably involves comprise. Decisions in Brussels are taken by Commissioners appointed by the member states or by the Council of Ministers which includes British Cabinet Ministers, and then approved by the European Parliament, which we elected. The system is by no means perfect, democracy rarely is, but nine times out of ten Britain gets what it wants.

Sadly much of the debate has focused on general perceptions of what membership involves rather than how and why the EU exists and the real benefits and the undoubted costs of membership. It is not too late for an informed debate.

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Have Police and Crime Commissioners been value for money?

This post first appeared on The New Statesman’s staggers blog, and also in The Lincolnshire Echo.

Next month voters in England and Wales will go to the polls to elect Police and Crime Commissioners. The first PCC elections which took place in November 2012 are notable for attracting the lowest national turnout in British electoral history with only around 15% of voters going to the polls. As a result the previous PCC elections represented extraordinarily poor value for money. The 2012 PCC election cost around £75m to run yet only around 5 million people turned out to vote. This represents a spend of around £15 for every vote cast, in terms of spend per vote the election of PCCs in 2012 was more costly than the re-election of US President Barack Obama which took place earlier the same month.

Police and Crime Commissioners are powerful individuals with extensive powers to set policing priorities, allocate resources and appoint Chief Constables. However, the low turnout meant that most were elected with the support of less than 7% of eligible voters, which naturally raised concerns about the legitimacy of those wielding these powers.

Eyebrows were also raised by the large salary and allowance packages available to PCCs. The £65k a year PCC salary is markedly higher than the £10k basic annual allowance for the police authority members they replaced. Although when one considers that most police authorities comprised around fifteen members and that many of those were eligible for additional allowances on top of their basic salary the generous salary of one individual does look like better value. However, many Police and Crime Commissioners have also appointed deputy commissioners and managerial teams also on generous salaries. The replacement of a number of modestly paid police authority members with a single highly paid individual and a team of well-paid advisors begins to look like less good value for money.

Moreover, while all PCCs were directly elected, albeit on a low turnout, their deputies and managerial teams were all appointed and as such are somewhat less accountable to the public than the local councillors who sat on the police authorities they replaced.

One reason why so many of the new PCCs appointed advisory and support teams was that many of them had little experience of policing prior to taking on the role. While most PCCs are without doubt well-meaning public spirited individuals who want to make a difference to policing in their local area, a strong public service ethic or even extensive experience in other fields does not necessarily qualify one to set priorities for public safety and security or to handle million pound budgets. Of course the police authorities they replaced were not comprised of law-enforcement professionals but they did include local councillors often with many years’ experience of handling local authority budgets and all included lay members who were magistrates and therefore had some experience of the law.

In most cases the main qualification for election as a PCC appears to be political affiliation. Only a quarter of PCCs elected in 2012 were independent and the majority of candidates for this year’s election are standing as representatives of a political party. However, unlike for example MPs or local councillors, PCCs are required to carry out their job with impartiality. It is somewhat odd therefore that voters are being encouraged to vote for candidates on the basis of their political affiliation rather than their capacity to do the job. In the case of Police and Crime Commissioners one might argue that political affiliation should be a disqualification rather than a qualification for the post.

The most significant power allocated to PCCs, which had not been exercised by police authorities, is the power to appoint Chief Constables. Once again the record here has been mixed. Several PCCs have had fractious relationships with their Chief Constables and there have been a number of well-publicised fallouts between the individuals holding these prominent positions. The impact of such breakdowns on morale in the wider police force is also a cause for concern. A recent parliamentary select committee inquiry found that, as a result of the introduction of PCCs, police forces were finding it increasingly difficult to find candidates willing to take on the post of Chief Constable.

Whatever the flaws, the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners has drawn attention to a role which in the past was largely exercised without considerable public oversight or debate. While most PCCs are not perhaps household names, they have provided a focus for media and therefore public attention. Moreover, the high profile coverage of some of the problems associated with the role is perhaps an indication of an increase in accountability, and may therefore be seen as a good thing. The fact that PCC elections are this year being run alongside local elections will inevitably mean an increase in turnout. It is to be hoped that the next batch of Police and Crime Commissioners repay the voters confidence.


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EU referendum myths: prisoners’ voting rights and EU membership

IMG_0284The most frustrating, but perhaps inevitable, feature of the EU referendum campaign is the wealth of ill-informed comment, and straightforward untruths, being disseminated by those campaigning. In some cases it is possible to argue that differences of opinion might lead to understandably different perspectives on the same issue. However, in other cases it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there has been a deliberate attempt to mislead.

A case in point is the leaflet above which presents ‘5 positive reasons to Vote Leave and take back control’. Reason number 2 which is ‘to take back control of our laws’ includes the following carefully worded statement:

If we vote to remain, EU laws will overrule UK laws and the European Courts will be in control of our trade, our borders, and big decisions like whether prisoners are allowed to vote.

The obvious red herring here, which those campaigning to leave the EU well know, is that Britain’s membership of the EU has anything to do with prisoners’ voting rights. The leaflet is careful to state that this is something which is of concern to ‘European Courts’, however, what it fails to mention is that the court which ruled that UK prisoners’ rights had been breached by denying them a vote is the European Court of Human Rights, which is not a court of the  European Union, and that withdrawal from the EU would not remove Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Court of Human Rights is an international court which was established in 1959 to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights. The 47 states which recognise the jurisdiction of the Court form the Council of Europe. These include all member states of the European Union, but also nineteen states which are not members of the EU including Russia, Switzerland and Turkey. Britain was a founding member of the Council of Europe, some fourteen years before it joined the European Community in 1973. It is perfectly possible, therefore, to be party to the ECHR without being a member of the EU.

It could, of course, be argued that leaving the EU would be a necessary precursor to withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. However, this does not seem to be the case. While the European Convention provides the EU with a standard for the protection of human rights, which is an expectation for member states, there is no formal link between the ECHR and EU membership. Moreover, while there is now an expectation that states wishing to join the EU will sign up to the ECHR, the status of existing member states is somewhat different. As Steve Peers points out in his excellent post on this issue, historically there has been no requirement that existing member states sign up to the ECHR, France, for example, was not a party to the convention until the 1970s.

Of course all EU member states, including Britain, are now party to the convention and the central question is, therefore, whether Britain could withdraw from the ECHR and remain a member of the EU. This has been the subject of a number of authoritative studies including this House of Commons library note. In short there is no formal requirement that withdrawal from the ECHR would trigger withdrawal, or ejection, from the EU, and such a course of action seems unlikely in the extreme. EU member states do have to guarantee certain fundamental rights and values, which are embodied in the ECHR, which means it is not possible to jettison altogether respect for human rights. However, if Britain were, for example, to claim that these values were also embodied in a different framework, such as a British Bill of Rights, then there is no reason why its EU membership would be threatened by withdrawal from the ECHR.

Once interesting consequence of all of this is that while Britain could withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and remain a member of the EU, if Britain were to leave the EU and the ECHR, and then decided to reapply for EU membership, it would in all likelihood need to sign up to the convention before gaining readmission to the EU. At present Britain has the option of being a member of the EU and not a member of the Council of Europe, but that option only exists as long as Britain remains a member of the EU.

All of which is a roundabout way of making a number of simple points:

  • The judgement on British prisoners’ voting rights did not emerge from an EU court.
  • Withdrawal from the EU will not alter Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Withdrawal from the EU is not necessary in order for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
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Should Britain be having a referendum on EU membership?

This is a slightly extended version of my ‘First Person’ column in The Lincolnshire Echo (Thursday 3 March – Wednesday 9 March edition).

refsThe forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will be David Cameron’s third significant referendum since he became Prime Minister in 2010. The previous two, on changing the electoral system and on Scottish independence, resulted in victory for the status quo and the Prime Minister will be hoping for a similar outcome in June.

Mr Cameron’s fondness for referendums is an interesting exercise in direct democracy. Providing additional opportunities for the public to participate in politics is good for democracy and clearly enhances the legitimacy of the result. Moreover, at a time when trust in politicians is low, allowing the public to take responsibility for difficult decisions might serve to bring home the challenges involved in governing the country and may help to restore trust in the political process.

However, using referendums to deal with the important or controversial issues is not without its pitfalls. While the public like the idea of referendums, on the basis that people generally like to be consulted, this is not always reflected in practice. Turnout in referendums is usually less than in national elections, although the Scottish independence referendum was an exception to this. Low turnout can mean that far from being indicators of national opinion significant decisions can be taken on the basis of relatively small but well organised campaigns.

A more significant problem is that in order to work, referendums need to boil complex issues down to simple yes or no answers. The referendum on electoral reform, for example, offered voters a choice between two, not dissimilar, electoral systems – the Alternative Vote and the current system of first-past-the-post – when there are, of course, many other voting systems which might be adopted. Britain’s relationship with the European Union is multi-layered and complex. In some areas Britain undoubtedly benefits from this relationship, in others it does not. In the case of the EU referendum, the issue is complicated by the fact that we don’t even have the comfort of being able to opt for the status quo. Mr Cameron’s new deal on Britain’s EU membership means that we are being asked to choose between two possible futures, neither of which are entirely clear.

Of course a referendum campaign provides a prime opportunity for the public to be informed about the important issues involved. However, if the last two referendums are anything to go by, the EU referendum campaign will generate more heat than light. There will be competing claims regarding the financial costs of membership and both camps will seek to scare the public about what might happen if Britain leaves or remains in the EU.

The campaign has not got off to a good start with considerable attention focused on personalities rather than issues. This is, in part, an unfortunate consequence of the referendum acting as a proxy for a Conservative leadership contest.

There is also a common, but mistaken, assumption that referendums serve to settle issues. Last year’s referendum on Scottish independence has certainly done little to dampen support for the SNP and the question of Scottish independence is likely to be back on the agenda if Britain leaves the EU against the wishes of Scottish voters. Britain’s relationship with Europe has remained one of the most divisive issues in British politics since the previous referendum in 1975. Whatever the outcome of this year’s referendum it seems unlikely to bring an end to that debate. It is hard to see the losing side quietly conceding defeat. The Conservative Party, in particular is, perhaps irrevocably, split on the issue and irrespective of the outcome there is a good chance that Mr Cameron will not be Prime Minister by the end of the year.

Whatever the limitations, referendums provide exciting opportunities for national debate on issues which matter to all of us. It is to be hoped that this latest exercise in direct democracy will serve to enhance our understanding of the complex issues involved but I am not optimistic.

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The criminalisation of homosexuality: a malign legacy of empire

pride-828056_640Last week the Indian Supreme Court agreed to reconsider an earlier ruling which recriminalized gay sex in India. Homosexuality was decriminalised in India in 2009 when a lower court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian penal code which penalises gay sex as an ‘unnatural offence’ punishable by up to ten years in prison, was unconstitutional. The judgement was widely seen as a significant step towards equality in India. However, in December 2013, the country re-enacted section 377 when the Supreme Court ruled that it was up to Parliament, not the courts, to rule on such issues. The judgement was widely condemned by human rights activists in India and around the world. Only days after the re-introduction of the ban, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, took the opportunity of a speech in India, to declare that he was ‘proud to stand for the equality of all people including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’ and that ‘criminalizing consensual, adult same-sex relationships violate basic rights to privacy and to freedom from discrimination.’ However, the conservative-dominated Indian parliament has been reluctant to consider the issue, and the Supreme Court’s decision this week to revisit it’s earlier ruling as ‘a matter of constitutional importance’ is perhaps the best opportunity to restore the rights of same-sex couples in India.

The legal battle over India’s gay sex laws highlights a significant, but often forgotten, legacy of British imperial rule, which continues to have an impact around the globe. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is a legacy of British colonial rule. The criminalisation of homosexuality was introduced into India by the British in 1860 and spread quickly throughout the Empire. While there is evidence that same-sex relationships were widely accepted in pre-colonial Africa and Asia, the criminalisation of homosexuality reflected a particularly European morality based on Christian traditions which viewed same-sex relationships as unnatural. The spread of these values throughout the Empire often went hand-in-hand with attempts to spread the gospel of Christianity. (Incidentally, the promotion of heteronormative behaviour in the colonies is also widely credited with giving the world a term for the missionary position, although the origins of this are not entirely clear.)

Decolonisation predated the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK with the result that when Britain left the Empire in addition to railways and modern drainage it also left behind a framework for the legal repression on homosexuality. Scholars have long asserted that the criminalisation of homosexuality was a malign legacy of British colonial rule. For example, in research reported in The Washington Post, Enze Han and Joseph O’Mahoney found that laws criminalising homosexuality are much more prevalent in former British colonies:

We investigated whether and why there is a variation in laws regulating and punishing homosexual conduct around the world. Looking at a variety of data on 185 countries, we found that former British colonies were much more likely to have laws that criminalise homosexual conduct than former colonies of other European powers, or than other states in general. For example, 57 per cent of states with such a law have a British colonial origin. Almost 70 per cent of states with a British colonial origin continue to criminalise homosexual conduct.

Ironically, apologists for Empire often point to repressive policies in the former colonies as evidence of the kind of thing that happened when the benign hand of British rule was lifted. At the same time, as Han and O’Mahoney point out, those regimes which have sought to recriminalize it, often claim that tolerance of homosexuality is an attempt to impose ‘Western’ values on the developed world, or little more than a form to neo-colonialism. Neither of these are correct. Clearly, homosexuality is no more peculiarly western than are teeth and toenails. While the passage of laws to criminalise homosexuality in many cases clearly does have its roots in colonial rule. It could be argued that many years after independence, former colonial powers can hardly be held responsible for the re-criminalisation of homosexuality in a number of their former colonies. However, it is important to remember that the legacy of empire was not conducive to equal rights in many forms and the laws which are now being re-enacted have their origins in British colonial rule.

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