Of human rights and Brexit: the importance of the EU Charter.

Yesterday, as you may be aware, was Day Two of the Commons’ consideration of the Lords amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Lords amendments that were up for debate in the House included Amendment no. 1 (to prevent the repeal of the 1972 Act unless the UK government sets out plans to negotiate a continued customs union post Brexit); amendment no. 51 (to oblige the UK government to prioritise continued participation in the EEA during the negotiations); and amendment no. 5 (to allow for the transposition of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into domestic law post Brexit). I had been glued to the Commons livestream and BBC Parliament throughout Tuesday (13 June), Day One of consideration, and Wednesday, Day Two of same.

Yesterday, I recalled how I had followed as the Lords inflicted defeat after defeat on the UK government on the Bill. I remembered feeling so utterly relieved that vital issues had been raised in the Lords, and that important amendments had been tabled to the Bill (including an amendment to uphold the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, to allow for continued North-South co-operation, and to prevent a hard border on the island). I had felt so frustrated at the government’s lack of consideration of such pressing issues, at their continuous intent to pursue a hard Brexit, at their seemingly haphazard Brexit policy. To see the Lords debate and consider the issues which the government seemed intent to ignore was refreshing and uplifting. Finally, I thought, finally issues like the Good Friday Agreement and the need to prevent the imposition of a hard border in Ireland were being considered and would be inserted into draft legislation. Finally, human rights and equality protections were being recognised, and tabled for inclusion in the draft legislation.

You see, the outcome of the European Referendum in the United Kingdom which led to the Brexit result always had vast political, economic and social implications. There remains, however, considerable uncertainty as to what those ramifications will be – including the implications for human rights standards and protection. This uncertainty has not been helped by the repeated dismissals of the UK government that human rights and equality protections would not diminish – even as the White Paper on the then-named Great Repeal Bill was published, with the deliberate ommission of the EU Charter.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill when introduced in the Commons last year in accordance with the White paper did not make provision for the retention of the Charter. The UK government considered then (and still does now) it to be an exception to the incorporation of EU law into UK law, with the Bill stating the Charter shall not be part of domestic law on or after exit day. The Bill states this does not affect the retention of any fundamental rights or principles which exist irrespective of the Charter. The UK Government has emphasised that the Charter did not create new rights; rather it codified rights and principles already present in EU law.

This claim is inaccurate.

All EU member states have signed up to the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter was given legal status in 2007 through the Lisbon Treaty, and was introduced in December 2009. The Charter complements the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and recognises at Article 52(3) that wherever Charter rights correspond to Convention rights, the meaning and scope of the rights are the same as those laid down by the Convention. This provision does not prevent EU law providing more expansive protection. Indeed, EU law has availed of this, as outlined below.

Now, the scope of the Charter is narrower than the ECHR, in that it applies the convention rights only to public bodies and only when they make decisions within the scope of EU Law. Moreover, the Charter has not been incorporated into domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998. However, in other respects, the Charter offers greater scope through enforcement at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The CJEU can disapply national law and provide remedies. In contrast, recognised breaches of Convention rights in primary legislation can only lead to a declaration of incompatibility, thus leaving any remedy to Parliament. Moreover, the Charter also goes beyond the Convention in outlining social and economic rights alongside civil and political rights under the headings of dignity, freedom, equality, solidarity, citizen’s rights and justice.

Therefore, whilst rights similar to most Charter rights can be found in ECHR and domestic laws, it is important to note that similar is not necessarily the same. The Charter protects important rights that may not be fully secured by other sources.

The Charter is widely considered to be the most advanced document of its kind, and includes rights that cannot be found in any other directly enforceable fundamental rights instrument to which the UK is a party. Unlike older instruments, the Charter contains ‘third generation’ rights – such as to data protection and guarantees on bioethics – that have proven especially important in protecting people’s rights in light of rapid technological and societal change.

UK law does not have the domestic equivalent of the Charter, meaning there could be a gap in human rights protections for such outlined third generation fundamental rights ie socio-economic rights post-Brexit.

Lord Pannick moved the amendment in the Lords which sought to allow for the transposition of the Charter into UK statute post Brexit. He emphasised the significant protections it provides, the legal uncertainty that would be generated should it not be incorporated into domestic law, and the loss of rights protections which are not present in current domestic legislation. The majority of peers who voted on his amendment understood the significance of the Charter, and voted in favour of retaining it. And so the government was defeated.

The government had avoided an embarassing defeat previously in the Commons. In November 2017, the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP tabled an amendment that would have enshrined the EU Charter into UK law as part of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. During the third day of debate on the Bill, the Solicitor General, Robert Buckland, said the UK Government was willing to work with Mr Grieve to see how rights under the Charter could be kept after Brexit, and would introduce its own amendment to this effect later in the bill’s passage. Mr Grieve said that was sufficient reassurance for him, and so he would not press for a vote on his amendment.

On the 5th December 2017, the UK Government published its Right by Right analysis of the Charter. The conclusion was that there would no weakening of rights protections post-Brexit, even if the Charter ceased to be part of UK statute. However, the UK Government’s Right by Right analysis, contrary to its aim, clearly demonstrates what will be lost when the Charter is abandoned. As highlighted by Liberty and Amnesty, the analysis cites the general principles of EU as providing equivalent rights -yet these are the very same principles whose enforceability is eroded by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

In addition, the Equality and Human Rights Commission sought independent legal advice which found that, as opposed to the prevention of weakening of rights protections, rights would in fact be lost, such as those which do not have direct equivalents in other UK human rights law e.g a freestanding right to non-discrimination, protection of a child’s best interests and the right to human dignity.

The Opinion concluded:
In summary, therefore, my principal conclusion is that the approach currently taken in the Bill does not achieve the Government’s stated intention that the protection of substantive rights conferred by the Charter will not be weakened. That intention can only be achieved by 13 incorporating relevant provisions of the Charter in the corpus of EU law which is retained after Brexit.

And so we come full circle, to Lord Pannick’s amendment receiving support from a majority of peers in the Lords, to that amendment returning to the Commons for a potential showdown in accordance with parliamentary ping pong. I followed the debate with interest.

In April this year, at the SDLP annual conference, I proposed my motion which included a provision to note with concern that the UK government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill omitted to transpose the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into domestic law upon withdrawal from the EU. I noted my concern that the government’s Brexit policy was not considering vital human rights and equality protections. My motion overall called for the prevention of any weakening of human rights protection post-Brexit.

I spoke in my capacity as the SDLP’s International Secretary, and said (half jokingly!) how since I was elected to the post, I had not stopped talking about the ramifications of Brexit to NI, but particularly my concerns about implications for human rights and equality standards.

Yesterday, I watched as the House of Commons voted by just twenty votes (321-301) to reject the amendment from the House of Lords to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that would have incorporated the EU Charter into domestic law.

Watching as the vote was confirmed, I felt a crushing sense of loss.

The EU Charter provides for additional recognition and protection for third generation, fundamental rights, socio-economic rights such as workers’ rights (including collective bargaining). The Charter has allowed for the evolution of important rights we now take for granted. It has been a valuable addition to equality and non-discrimination law, specifically around LGBT rights, children’s rights, and rights of the elderly. I could not, and today I still cannot understand how MPs could vote to reject important provisions on human rights, equality, and non-discrimination protections.

I was disappointed, but sadly not surprised. After all, the party of government has long supported the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998, and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights. Moreover, the Conservative party would also been keen to see the UK withdraw from the ECHR – a deeply concerning prospect.

No matter what the UK government, various ministers, or the UK government’s ‘right by right analysis’ state, UK law does not have the equivalent of the EU Charter. Excluding the EU Charter from the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, with the implication that it will not be retained post Brexit, will result in a significant reduction in human rights protections. There will be a gap in human rights protections for those third generational rights, those socio-economic rights, as well as generate legal uncertainty and confusion.

There will also be a specific impact on NI: the Good Friday Agreement provided that there would be an equivalence of human rights and equality standards across the island of Ireland. If NI loses the protections advanced by the EU Charter whilst the Republic retains them, then citizens in NI will suffer from a diminution of human rights standards, recognition, and protection. The UK government is a co-guarantor of the Agreement; it should be aware that its desire to refrain from incorporating the EU Charter into domestic law clashes with the Agreement.

The overall decision to leave the European Union has highlighted -and in conjunction with the UK government’s current Brexit policy, threatened -the Good Friday Agreement’s aim of ensuring an equivalent level of human rights protection across the island of Ireland. The potential loss of the Charter in conjunction with the ongoing absence of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland means human rights protections could be undermined. The UK government as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement must understand it has a responsibility to support the full implementation and realisation of all provisions of the Agreement, including those which require equivalent human rights standards and protections. Apparently, the UK government is not aware of this important responsibility.

At the SDLP annual conference, I concluded my speech by saying, “Theresa May says Brexit means Brexit. We must say human rights mean human rights.”

I am disappointed and frustrated by yesterday’s vote and the continuation of the UK government to pursue a purist Brexit ideology which is ignoring human rights and equality provisions. We deserve better. Our human rights deserve better.

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Brexit, leaks, and missing Bills: news summary.

What a week it has been, and we are only two days in.

Brexit update

Prime Minister Theresa May was back in the Commons on Monday afternoon, with a statement covering last week’s EU summit, and the round of diplomacy that preceded it.

Outlining the progress to date on EU citizens’ rights, the issue of Northern Ireland, and the UK’s financial commitments, Mrs May then concluded, ‘We are going to leave the European Union in March 2019, delivering on the democratic will of the British people. Of course, we are preparing for every eventuality to ensure we leave in a smooth and orderly way, but I am confident that we will be able to negotiate a new, deep and special partnership between a sovereign United Kingdom and our friends in the European Union.’

At the European Council Summit, Mrs May noted, ‘the 27 member states responded by agreeing to start their preparations for moving negotiations on to trade and the future relationship’. Which sounds great, until you remember that the EU27 agreed to commence internal preparations for negotiations on trade, not to commence trade negotitations themselves. Moreover, the EU27 made the formal declaration that ‘sufficient progress’ had not been made during the talks to date, the threshold required for talks to progress to trade. And what is more, they came to this decision in just 90 seconds.

Speaking of trade…

Theresa May is reportedly delaying a Cabinet debate on a future EU-UK trade deal because she is worried it will spark resignations.

Also – the Prime Minister and her most senior ministers are to embark on another round of fierce diplomacy over the coming weeks, aimed over the head of EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier and squarely at the EU27.

Of dinners and leaks

To no-one’s surprise, the recent dinner between Mrs May, Jean-Claude Junker, and Michel Barnier was apparently leaked to the Monday edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, better known as FAZ. (And yes, that name should ring a bell: that’s the very same German publication that published a detailed report of Mrs May’s disastrous dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker back in April.)

Once again, an unknown source has briefed the paper’s political journalist Thomas Gutschker with a detailed – and embarrassing – account of the Prime Minister’s latest dinner with Juncker, plus her later conversations with Angela Merkel and other EU leaders.

In a report published last Sunday night, Gutschker had said the mood at the latest dinner was “quite different” from the original May/Juncker summit in April. “She begged for help…Theresa May seemed anxious to the president of the Commission, despondent and discouraged.” The Prime Minister was also described as being “tormented,” sleep-deprived, with “deep rings” beneath her eyes.

FAZ also reported that Mrs May’s phone conversations with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron were not seen as a charm offensive but as “calls for help,” which were rebuffed. “Merkel, Macron and Juncker could not be softened,” FAZ said. “All three insisted on further progress, especially on the sensitive issue of money, before there could be direct talks about the future. Brexit was not wanted and they could not solve the problems of the British for them, they said dryly in the chancellor’s office.”

However, the leak that wasn’t a leak that was a leak: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hit back yesterday and said “nothing is true” in the story, saying “I had an excellent working dinner with Theresa May.” When asked if Mrs May had pleaded with him for help, he said: “No, that’s not the style of British prime ministers.” President Juncker also rejected reports he called the Prime Minister “tired” and “despondent,” saying “she was in good shape” and “she was fighting, as is her duty, so everything for me was OK.”

According to The Times, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was ‘furious’ at the leaks, and is concerned Theresa May could be toppled and replaced during the Brexit negotiations.

What next for the Chief Negotiator?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, has revealed that work has now commenced on the EU’s Brexit treaty, but added that he will quit his post before trade talks with the UK are complete.

Playing down the prospect of a no-deal scenario, Mr Barnier told European journalists: “I am convinced a path is possible as long as we de-dramatise the discussion. My team are already starting work on a draft of the treaty for the exit of the U.K. from the EU.” Mr Barnier warned a trade deal with Britain would be difficult and take “several years” to complete, but said he himself will step down shortly after Brexit Day in March 2019.

Budget woes

Budget day is now little more than a month away, and the Cabinet is at war over it. Cabinet rivals are apparently bidding to replace Chancellor Philip Hammond over fears he lacks the sufficient authority to get difficult budget measures through the Commons. The Times had the scoop this week, saying: ‘Last week’s cabinet discussion on the budget was described as “14 different job applications to be chancellor”. The meeting overran as so many figures around the cabinet table demanded to speak, including Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, David Gauke and Andrea Leadsom. One source said that of all the contributions, Mrs Leadsom’s were the most practical and sensible.’

Wither the EU (Withdrawal) Bill?

Day two of this week, and there is still no sign of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill this week. The list of amendments to date has, however, been published online. The PLP were apparently briefed by Labour’s Chief Whip that the Bill will not return to the Commons until after recess, week beginning 13th November…

Bercow versus the UK Government, round ??

There were extraordinary scenes in the Commons last week over the Opposition Day Debate on pausing the rollout of Universal Credit, with Commons’ Speaker John Bercow strongly criticised the UK Government’s actions (Conservative MPs were instructed to abstain in the vote), saying “this institution is bigger than one government”.

Now, he has now criticised UK government ministers for the “indefensible” delay in setting up one of Parliament’s key scrutinising committees, the Liaison Committee. The Liaison Committee, made up of the chairs of the various departmental select committees, has still not been set up more than four months after June’s general election.

News roundup: delay in talks, a sudden speech – it’s all about Brexit.

Whose Brexit is it, anyway?

Following on from yesterday’s news, Theresa May to deliver Brexit speech in Florence [Politics Home]

Prime Minister Theresa May will make a major speech in Florence on 22 September to set out her vision for the next stages of the Brexit talks. Downing Street said the PM will underline the UK’s wish for a “special partnership” with the EU after Brexit – May to set out post-Brexit ‘partnership’ [BBC News]

The speech will come almost six months to the day after Mrs May invoked Article 50. Little progress has been made, with the next round of Brexit talks have been delayed to provide for this latest intervention. The speech is being made a month before the important EU Council summit on 22 October – when the EU27 leaders will discuss whether “sufficient progress” has been made to start trade talks. The UK needs the EU27 to determine that ‘sufficient progress’ has been made, as without it, no talks on future UK-EU trade deals can commence. However, at the conclusion of August’s round of negotiations, Michel Barnier said no decisive progress had been made. A breakthrough is now needed.

See: Next round of Brexit talks delayed by a week, Government confirms [Politics Home] It has been confirmed that both the EU and the UK have agreed the next round of Brexit talks will take place on 25 September. Negotiators from both sides had been expected to re-start their discussions on 18 September.

Parliamentary Corner:

Conservatives accused of ‘running scared’ after dodging votes on pay cap and tuition fees [Politics Home] The Conservatives have been accused of “running scared” of he UK Parliament after shying away front confronting two Commons votes they were set to lose. No Conservative forced a division following Labour-led debates on the public sector pay cap and tuition fees. This came after it was revealed that the DUP were planning to vote with Labour on both issues, robbing the Conservatives of their working majority.

Labour’s motions passed on Wednesday without being pushed to a vote after it became clear the government had no majority to oppose the call for an end to the public sector pay cap for NHS workers nor the £250 a year increase in student fees.

It is the first example of the DUP breaking with May since they struck a confidence and supply agreement to vote together on crucial legislation after the general election.

The question becomes: might Labour be able to exploit differences between the Conservatives and the DUP in the future in order to inflict future defeats on the Government?

Parliamentary… sovereignty?

Brexit: EU repeal bill wins first Commons vote [BBC News] On Tuesday morning, after two days of debate and around 100 MPs contributing, MPs backed the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill by 326 votes to 290. The Bill’s committee stage will take place when MPs return to Parliament after their party conferences. The Bill will be heard by a Committee of the Whole House, and around eight days have been set aside for the process.

From a NI perspective: all ten DUP MPs supported the Government. Lady Sylvia Hermon (Ind, North Down) supported Labour’s amendment, and voted against the Government.

The UK Government has won one battle, but has the war entire to still fight for. MPs have tabled 29 new clauses and 136 amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Labour’s proposed amendments would deny ministers ‘Henry VIII’ powers, meaning the UK Parliament would have to vote to implement a withdrawal agreement and give some repatriated powers to the devolved assemblies. Those backed by Tories -including Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry – involve transposing the Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law, limiting ministers’ powers to amend EU law, and a requirement for the final deal with the EU to be approved by Parliament.

And finally…

The UK Government won its crucial Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Conservatives a majority on every law-making committee of the parliament, despite not having an overall majority in the House. The Conservatives had to rely on the 10 DUP MPs to ensure the motion was passed.

  • The UK Parliament goes into recess this afternoon, as party conference season gets underway. First up is the Liberal Democrats’ party conference (16th-19th September), followed by the Labour Party (24th-27th September). The Conservatives will gather later (1st-4th October).

Devolution revolution

The Scottish and Welsh devolved governments are teaming up once more. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones previously issued joint statements opposing the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in its current form when it was initially published, criticising its lack of provision for devolving powers to the devolved nations. Now, the two governments have published their respective legislative consent memos on the Bill. The Scottish memo can be read here. The Welsh memo can be read here.

Don’t bother looking for a statement or similar memo from Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed in January, and has not been functioning since the snap March election.

Today
The public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire opens this morning.

Inquiry Chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick is to make his opening statement at 10.30AM.

French Presidential Election: Second Round

I recently wrote the night before the French electorate took to the polls to vote in the first round of the Presidential election. I thought I would write an update post following the outcome of the first round of voting.

As predicted, no candidate won a majority. The pollsters were vindicated. Consequently, a run-off election between the top two candidates, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! and Marine Le Pen of the National Front will be held on the 7th May 2017.

Macron, a pro-European centrist, took first place with 24.01% of the first round voting, while the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Le Pen came second on 21.30%, according to final results released Monday by the French Interior Ministry. This marks highest-ever voting tally for the National Front party – Le Pen’s advancement to the second round is not without precedent as her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to a runoff against the then-incumbent Jacques Chirac in 2002.

After their respective eliminations in the first round, both François Fillon and Benoît Hamon called to vote for Emmanuel Macron, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon refused to pronounce in favour of either candidate, preferring to first consult activists from his movement. He has since issued a suggestion that his voters do not vote for Le Pen. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, however, has since endorsed Le Pen during the evening of 28 April. He was subsequently revealed as her choice for Prime Minister the following day.

The key take-away message? Out with the old, in with the new. France opted to dump its political establishment in a collective spirit of ‘now for something completely different’.

France’s two major parties — the Républicains and the ruling Socialists — were relegated to third and fifth place respectively. The Socialists, who just five years ago controlled every level of the French government, managed to get only over 6% of the vote.

It is the first time since the establishment of the fifth French Republic in 1958 that no candidate from the two main political parties of the left and right has made it into the second round of the Presidential vote.

Evidently, the majority of the French electorate sent a clear signal of their intent to see change. In Macron, they are now also a step away from putting a cosmopolitan, pro-EU, economically liberal non-politician into the Élysée.

Macron goes through to the second round as the clear frontrunner, with most voters expected to switch to him from mainstream defeated candidates. Le Pen, meanwhile, faces an uphill struggle.

Yet… concern remains with Le Pen’s candidacy. It is no surprise that European political leaders, including German ministers, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, all broke with tradition, and either congratulated Macron or called on the French to vote for him. Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, urged his voters to vote for Macron, reminding them that there is a difference between a political rival, and “an enemy of the Republic”.

Going forward, Macron will continue to build on his pro-European, centrist message whilst Le Pen has made it clear she would intensify the nationalist, anti-Islamist rhetoric that propelled her into the second round. Interestingly, the Monday after the first round, she announced she was taking a leave of absence as leader of the National Front party to focus on the election campaign. (Clearly in the hope to appeal to voters with less extremist views.)

And don’t forget, whoever wins will have to work alongside the French Parliament. There’s a big question over whether either candidate is capable of achieving a parliamentary majority when that vote takes place in June.

Today, May Day, saw thousands of people marching in Paris in rival political rallies. Le Pen and Macron held overlapping rallies in the French capital at the same time as nationwide May Day union marches.

Currently, opinion polls are predicting Macron will win around 60% of the vote on Sunday. Le Pen is expected to claim around 40%. The race is on, and it is too early to call.

From snap press conference, to snap General Election.

And so it came to pass, the Tuesday after Easter weekend, that the British Prime Minister did announce her intention to call an early General Election.

What started out as a sudden announcement of a press conference outside Downing Street quickly descended into rampant speculation. Had Queen died? Is Theresa May resigning? Are we going to war with North Korea? Had Theresa May set off Trident? Is Jeremy Corbyn going to organise an Official Opposition? (Then again, maybe not. I did say it was all mere speculation.) And then, because Northern Ireland is that political thorn in the side of the British government these days (we still do not have an Executive, just so you know) there was some murmurings that perhaps the Prime Minister was about to deliver a statement on the political impasse here, and potentially announce the introduction of direct rule.

I thought the chat about the Prime Minister announcing a resignation on health grounds was unlikely. And, I also considered that despite some questionable decisions since last summer, Theresa May was unlikely to have accidently fired Trident. Firing metaphorical shots about Gibraltar is where it stops with this Prime Minister.

On the speculation about the suspension of Stormont, well, I did not think it to be entirely impossible. The British government is keen for resolution here; it has to present a united front of sorts during the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Moreover, no British government has ever enjoyed dealing with the political crises Northern Ireland throws up. However, I ruled this out because any announcement on Northern Ireland, whether to impose direct rule or call yet another snap election, would surely come from the Secretary of State. James Brokenshire has taken the lead on Northern Ireland since the Executive’s collapse over the RHI controversy in early January. Theresa May has taken a back seat, especially over the recent negotiations and their subsequent collapse and re-formation. James Brokenshire had said he would come to a decision after the Easter weekend, and the political parties do seem to be stuck in stalemate. But I doubted the Prime Minister would summon the UK-wide media to a sudden press conference just for Northern Ireland.

That left speculation over an early General Election. This seemed possible to me, with Labour polling in dire straits, with the Conservatives polling strongly in marked contrast. And after all, Theresa May needs a mandate, and urgently. She found herself anointed as Conservative Party leader and thus Prime Minister last summer; she was never elected to be Prime Minister. Attempting to oversee the most divisive operation in Brexit, she needs to say she has the support of the people – at least, the support of the majority of those who vote. Moreover, she does not wish to be simply the Prime Minister who heralded Brexit. As we have seen with her stance on education, particularly around grammar schools, there is a whole domestic policy agenda she wishes to pursue.

The scene is set. The Prime Minister settles down at her podium, ten minutes before she was expected. Truly, we all should have picked up the theme was ‘early’ from that alone.

And so she duly announced she had spoken with her Cabinet, and all had agreed an early election was the most suitable course. It shall be held on the 8th June, and essentially contested on Brexit.

In her statement, May said her government was trying to deliver on last year’s referendum result by making sure Britain regained control and struck new trade deals.

“After the country voted to leave the EU, Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership. Since I became prime minister the government has delivered precisely that,” she said, but claimed that other political parties had opposed her efforts.

“The country is coming together but Westminster is not. Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach. The Lib Dems have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. Unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”

Now, Theresa May has been quite clear in the past about wanting the next general election to be in 2020, so she stunned many in Westminster by announcing that it would actually be held this year.  The Prime Minister claimed she had changed her mind “reluctantly”, although the spate of polls putting the Tories as much as 21 points ahead of Labour may have made it easier. You know, 21 points ahead means 21 points ahead. And all this, despite a recent policy blitz by Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. Evidently, the Prime Minister was tempted to capitalise on the poor ratings in an effort to boost her slim working majority in order to pass both Brexit and domestic legislation. (This, of course, will render her current reliance on the support of the DUP in the Commons null and void…)

The Prime Minister will first have to win a vote by MPs today to hold an early election thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, she cannot call an election directly, but must laydown a motion in the House of Commons. This will require two-thirds of MPs to back it. The Commons vote will follow a 90-minute debate on Wednesday, after Prime Minister’s Questions and any urgent questions or ministerial statements.

That shouldn’t be too hard for her to win given that Labour has welcomed the move, while the SNP and Liberal Democrats would find it hard to vote against it as they would be effectively voting to keep the Tories in power.

Currently, the Commons composition looks like this: the Conservatives have 330 MPs, giving the party its working majority of 16. Labour has 229, the SNP 54, and the Lib Dems 8. The DUP hold 8, Sinn Féin 4, the SDLP 3, and the UUP 2, with one Independent. Plaid Cymru have 3 seats, the Greens 1, and there are four other independents. (Note that UKIP recently lost their only MP, when Douglas Carswell announced his resignation from the party. If he votes with his old party, the Conservatives, he gives the government a majority of 17.) Based on current polling, Labour could lose around 70 seats.

The Conservative leader said the vote would give “certainty and stability” to the country for the Brexit process. As nothing promises stability and certainty quite like an early General Election on the most divisive issue of our times in Brexit.

Moreover, Theresa May might have hurt her public image slightly by calling this election. After vowing for months that she would not seek a snap election, insisting she would see the government through to the next statutory General Election in 2020, she now appears to have gone back on her word for the sake of her party, and party seats. The Independent has rather helpfully complied a list of her statements on the issue of an early election. It is worth highlighting that the most recent comment on the issue came just under a month ago.

This will be the second General Election in as many years, and the third UK-wide vote in two years. But spare a thought for my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. We have had two Assembly elections in less than a year, and now have to return to the polls in a few months. And it gets better: if there is no agreement reached between the main political parties, we face the prospect of a third Assembly election in a few months, too.

Of course, one could argue that the decision of the Cabinet to support the Prime Minister in calling for an early General Election, during a time of political instability in Northern Ireland, is evidence of their (dis)regard for the peace process here. One could argue this. But as for myself, I’m digging around for my canvassing shoes. It is going to be a long few weeks.

Child tax credit limit reform.

In March, a controversial proposal became law without any debate or vote in the UK Parliament. It requests new mothers who are rape survivors for verification if they wish to claim tax credits for more than two children.

The 6th of April marked an important, albeit shameful date in the political and social calendar. It marked the date when the new change to child tax credit policy came into effect. What change? The one which says any child, the third in the family, born after the 6th April 2017, will not eligible for child tax credit for that family. It also saw the coming into effect of the ‘rape clause’.

The regulations, announced in the 2015 Budget by the then-Chancellor, George Osborne, were put into law through a statutory instrument, a form of legislation that allows laws to be amended without parliament’s approval. The policy implemented on 6 April restricts tax credit entitlement for new claimants to a maximum of two children, with exceptions for multiple births – and for women who could show that their third or subsequent child was conceived as a result of rape.

Those seeking to claim the exemption for rape must be assessed by what the British government has described in a consultation as a “professional third party”, which could include health workers, police, social workers or rape charities.

The Department for Work and Pensions has described the changes to tax credits as “a key part of controlling public spending”, and has pledged to implement the exemptions in “the most effective, compassionate way”.

Controlling public spending. This is an ideological battle of finance, a promulgation of the lazy stereotype that the poor claim hard-earned taxpayers’ money. It is not about consideration of all citizens. This is not about compassion.Moreover

It is wrong that the British government’s reforms of child tax credit target women and families from socio-deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds.

How many families might be thrust into poverty because of this? Policy in Practice recently published a paper which estimates child poverty could be driven up by 10% by 2020. You see, families receiving child tax credit are using it to bring up their children, to assist them in times of ever-increasing cost of living. It is not, and never has been, about receiving ‘freebies’. It is not, and never has been, about incentives to keep giving birth and claim state handouts.

Try as I might, I cannot forget the week beginning 3rd April, and the implementation of these reforms. These reforms are essentially an attack on women and single mothers. If you oversee a family of more than two children, and you struggle to make ends meet, this government will punish you for having that third child. If you are a woman with a struggling family, or a single mother with a struggling family, the government is telling you it shall not assist you with your children, because you dared to have three. You are too poor to have more than two children, whereas your middle class peer is welcome to have three children.

A man might have multiple children with multiple partners, and he shall not suffer the consequence of these reforms. Women, who comprise the majority of primary -givers, will feel the repercussions of this policy.

This is punishing poorer women. This is punishing children. Child poverty could increase by 10% within three years as a consequence of these reforms, but the government does not care. It does not want to assist the less well-off in society, despite evidence illustrating that investing in early years and children pays off. Lifting children and families out of poverty increases their future prospects – health, education, self-esteem, well-being, mental health. This government talks abut looking after the JAMs, the Just About Managing, but apparently only so far as they do not have more than two children.

Moreover…It is reprehensible that the British government’s reforms of child tax credit include making women prove their third child was the result of rape.

It is degrading and wrong to expect rape survivors to recount their ordeal. It is heartbreaking that such a callous policy was ever mentioned, let alone implemented by the British government. This ‘rape  clause’ might open women to re-traumatisation; it takes no account of their dignity and humanity but cares only about finances.

Imagine being a survivor of rape. Imagine discovering you are pregnant. Imagine making that difficult decision to keep the baby. Imagine opening a form, just to see you are expected to sign a little box which says your third child was the result of ‘non-consensual conception’ – a jumble of policy-speak, lacking empathy and understanding of your painful circumstances.

But then again, this is just an exercise in curtailing excessive public spending. The British government is going about this exercise in the most compassionate way.

Really.

 

Mr Osborne goes to London… Evening Standard.

George Osborne’s career looked finished after the overall vote for Brexit, and after he was unceremoniously ousted from Cabinet by the newly-crowned Prime Minister, Theresa May. The final nail in the coffin, it was thought, was when it emerged that his parliamentary seat of Tatton would be abolished in the boundary review. It seemed as though the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, having lost the Brexit gamble, had lost his political gravitas.

But then again, maybe not. For Mr Osborne has now found himself a safe seat – the Editor’s chair at the London Evening Standard.

Mr Osborne is expected to take up the new role in May, while keeping his seat in Parliament. He will have to balance his time carefully in order to fit in his other jobs: advising the investment manager Blackrock, chairing the Northern Powerhouse project, working as a Kissinger fellow at the McCain Institute and his speaking on the after-dinner circuit. His bulging portfolio has led to calls for him to stand down as MP for Tatton.

Yet Mr Osborne believes he can manage both jobs as ‘this paper is edited primarily in the morning’, while ‘Parliament votes in the afternoon’. This is rather ambitious: surely an editor needs to be an active presence in the evening, to confirm the final version before print? Extraordinary time management indeed.

Then again, one can afford such management. It has been suggested that since his fall from Cabinet grace, Mr Osborne has garnered more than £700,000 from public speaking; secured a £650,000 stipend for four days’ work a month from BlackRock; been granted a £120,000 fellowship at the McCain Institute; and can now expect to take home more than £220,000 for a four-day week at the Standard. That’s on top of his £75,000 salary as an MP.

Needless to say, the announcement of the selection of Mr Osborne caused such a furore, because MPs who undertake second jobs will now fear Mr Osborne’s dealings will lead to a crackdown on outside earnings that, in turn, will cost them money. Already it has been suggested that this will trigger an official review by the UK’s chief standards watchdog, the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

And so cue the argument for Mr Osborne to step down from his position as a MP immediately. This is not just on the basis of money, but also on the basis of the conflict of interest argument.

Claims of a conflict of interest between his membership of the third and fourth estates -and between his City and newspaper roles – are loud. It has to be said: how can Mr Osborne edit a newspaper, de facto positioning it along a political axis, whilst undertaking advisory work at BlackRock? How will he juggle engaging in private MP meetings, and overseeing political columns?

The former Chancellor’s break into journalism will give him considerably more influence than he would have as just a humble backbencher. Might it just offer him a means to exacting revenge on his political rivals?

It was noticeable that Number Ten was not in the loop over the former Chancellor’s work. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman was rendered speechless when the news was broken to him in his regular morning briefing.

Mr Osborne himself has made clear he would not be above giving his own government a hard time:

“We will judge what the government, London’s politicians and the political parties do against this simple test: is it good for our readers and good for London? If it is, we’ll support them. If it isn’t, we’ll be quick to say so.”

It might be argued that by taking on the position of editor of a newspaper with an estimated circulation of one million in the City of London, Mr Osborne might just be able to wield some political influence, namely through the political position adopted by the paper.

The main issue is that of Brexit: the former Chancellor was firmly on board with former Prime Minister David Cameron in campaigning for Remain. The current government is tasked with acquiring and implementing Brexit, but seems keen to go a step further than merely withdrawing from the EU – exit from the Single Market has been voiced. Mrs May has been adamant in her stance that there will not be an ongoing briefing to Parliament during negotiations – probably to prevent any criticism at home from weakening her position. Nevertheless, the media will still cover the negotiations to the best of their ability – the coverage – and angle – offered by the Standard during this time will be interesting.

Moreover, whilst Mr Osborne will no doubt be careful not to attack Mrs May personally, he could just use the paper to campaign for policies that will put him on a collision course with her instincts for more state invention on economics and immigration, on the basis that these are issues particularly important for London.

But any potential power of this position should not be overestimated. It should be remembered that the Standard’s current track record of persuasion is not exactly impressive. The Standard did come out in favour of Remain (check out that not-exactly-complementary reference to George Osborne) during the EU referendum last year, and London as a whole did vote Remain. However, on the basis of party politics: the Standard supported the Conservative Party in the general election of 2015, but it was the Labour Party who dominated. Moreover, the Standard supported Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith in the 2016 London Mayoral election (who had announced his support for the UK to leave the EU) – Labour candidate Sadiq Khan was the victor.

Spare a thought during all of this for the constituents of Tatton. How must they feel, knowing their MP has multiple jobs and has declared himself a ‘Londoner’? As the MP for Tatton, Mr Osborne has duties in the North of England which do not align with his new-found duties as a newspaper editor in the South.

No doubt there will be more coverage of this story, and further developments. It is something to note though that on the same week the Prime Minister publicly reversed her Chancellor’s announcement on his policy of NI and the self employed – to his embarrassment, surely – the former Chancellor has proven he is quite content with life outside of the Cabinet circle – and that he hasn’t gone away.