Author Archives: Clive Sneddon

Clive Sneddon – Improving Health Services for All

At every election – Scottish, Westminster and occasionally local too – candidates receive carefully-considered manifestos from voluntary bodies, asking them to pledge to implement their particular wishes. Many of these revolve around health issues, such as the care and treatment of people suffering from cancer, diabetes, heart disease or strokes.

Clive Sneddon is firmly convinced that we need a National Health Service in all parts of the UK which is properly funded and staffed, to deliver what is needed for both mental and physical health. Only consultation with medical staff will ensure that the right priorities are identified and delivered.

The Liberal Democrats have announced that they would end the 1% cap on public sector pay, and would increase it in line with inflation. They have also announced an increase of 1p in the pound on income tax to pay for improved health services. This approach is supported by the former head of the NHS David Nicholson, as well as former heads of the Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of GPs and Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Because of the current devolved powers, the tax on dividends is the only part that would apply in Scotland. Even this limited part would raise £35 million, enough to transform Scottish mental health services. The Scottish Government already has the power to fund the Scottish NHS, if it cares to use its powers.

Despite the best efforts of its devoted staff, the NHS is currently under severe strain. Clive Sneddon is committed to finding and implementing practical solutions which will give us a fully functioning NHS again.

If you want to change Britain for the better, you can do so by voting Liberal Democrat on 8th June.

The Wembley debate

Watching the final big event in the campaign led me to try and identify the arguments made for leaving the EU. They were all about control. They wanted to control UK borders in order to reduce the number of migrants. They wanted to control regulations, though without saying what they would or would not regulate. Especially they wanted to be in control themselves. They were also optimistic about what the future would bring. They failed to accept that some predictions of economic problems had come from their own side.

Why exactly should anyone believe they can control the world? Getting others to agree to whatever you want implies you think you do control the world. No one has succeeded yet. So why should anyone believe the Brexiteers can do so? Equally, stop the world, I want to get off, is not a vote of confidence in what the UK can achieve, whatever their apparent optimism.

On the remain side, they thought positively about the rights and economic success we have, and attributed them to working with others rather than claiming we had achieved them all by ourselves. In particular Europe has a role in safeguarding workers’ rights and in making us a good place to do business, with a level playing field helping us compete. This seems a much more realistic view of the world as most people know it.

Is that world perfect? No. Can the British Government make things better for its own citizens, not least in helping British people as well as new arrivals into work and providing the infrastructure we all need? Yes, it can and should. Much of the resentment at immigration comes from successive British Governments not having done enough. The present government, and its successors, should all do more.

Can the EU reform itself? Yes it can, as every treaty change shows. Specifically it should help its member states deal with the problems their people are having now, and reduce the risk of national resentments building up and hatred destroying lives. It can do this by using the money it gets from member states to help economic development, as it already does in training and cross border infrastructure. It must be realistic about helping the Greeks become solvent again. This includes discouraging the Germans from lending money to allow those who cannot afford them to buy German goods. None of this is rocket science, and can be worked on after June 24th to get agreement on changes within the EU in the next year or so. Meantime, it is up to us to Vote Remain on 23rd June, to start building a better future.

The murder of Jo Cox

After her horrific murder, I write to express my personal sympathy to the family, friends and colleagues of Jo Cox. It is for the police to investigate her death, and to take the action they think is needed to protect others.

However, this is not the first time an MP has been attacked by a constituent. I think everyone should reflect on how politicians are seen by the public. The politicians I know all want to make a difference, and to help their constituents in any way they can. Public service is a noble ideal, which they strive to live up to.

This is not the picture painted by many sections of the media. How often have we heard sneering reference to ‘politicians’ in general, as if every politician were the same? Such glib language invites the public to despise politicians and undervalue their work. Politics is the art of the possible, and that means making progress in small steps, to achieve the best outcome for individuals.

It is for the media to say what has happened, not to speculate endlessly about motive and character of those involved. Or even worse to speculate about what has yet to happen and may never happen. Reporting should be calm, objective and factual. Anything else is a disservice to the public, and to the very possibility of democracy.

On treaties and sovereignty

What exactly is the relationship between treaties and sovereignty? And is there a difference between parliamentary sovereignty and state sovereignty? I think the Leave camp is muddying the waters by talking of wanting to take back control, as if we had ever lost it.

The UK doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty comes from the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Parliament was then defined as combining Crown, Peers and Commons. Nowadays, sovereignty belongs to the elective dictatorship of the Commons. This means that the Commons could decline to act on a referendum outcome, because any referendum is advisory. However, politically, that would be difficult, in this case certainly for David Cameron but also for others. Constitutionally, the making and unmaking of treaties is still part of the royal prerogative. The monarch normally acts on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. It was a constitutional novelty when John Major put the Maastricht Treaty to the House of Commons. But we are now in uncharted waters because of the splits within the Conservative party. Would one Tory faction decline to act on a referendum result, insist on a Commons vote, and invite other parties to support them? If they believe in parliamentary sovereignty, they should.

State sovereignty goes back to 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia. At this point, the German states established that they were sovereign within the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor could not interfere in their internal affairs. I have heard two different lawyer views on treaties, and I suspect they are both correct in their way. The first is that a treaty is simply an agreement between the states who signed it to do what they have agreed to do. There is no enforcement mechanism (other than war), so if one or both sides renege on their word, there will be no comeback. In any case, a state can formally repudiate a treaty it has signed. On that reading, no state sovereignty is lost by signing a treaty.

An example of no comeback is the recent ruling of the Strasbourg court against the UK’s blanket penalty of losing the vote if you were in prison. This court comes from the Council of Europe treaty, which predates the EU and includes Russia. The court said that it was legal to deprive someone of the right to vote if the judge so decided on the facts of the case. Instead of changing British law to give discretion to the judge, the UK Parliament chose to reassert the blanket loss of voting rights for all prisoners. There has been, and can be, no comeback. So in this case, the sovereign parliament used its power to override a supra-national court, to whose jurisdiction the Crown had signed up in a treaty.

The second lawyer view is that a treaty pools sovereignty on those issues it deals with. This is a point commonly made about the EU treaties. That is because they agree what the member states will work together on. The same argument would also apply to the NATO treaty, which is about pooling sovereignty for defence. This treaty contains a commitment to come to the aid of any member state which has been invaded or attacked by a third party. I have not heard anyone from the Leave camp argue that we should leave NATO. Yet if they are serious about state sovereignty, the NATO treaty, because it concerns the state’s core function of defence, is a bigger infringement of UK sovereignty than the EU treaties.

There are two big lies in the Leave case. The first is that the EU is a state which is bigger than the UK and can impose its will on us. The EU is not a state, but a treaty organisation. We agreed the treaties, and under them have voting rights in the Council of Ministers to decide on individual issues. Most decisions are taken by consensus. In the minority of cases where there is a vote, the UK has been on the winning side more than 85% of the time in the last five years. In the real world, negotiation results in an acceptable outcome, but not exactly what each individual wanted. The EU belongs to the real world, not the Leave fantasy.

The second lie is that the UK has no control over the future development of the EU. In particular it is claimed that the UK cannot veto any applicant to join the EU. But a new entrant is admitted through a treaty signed and ratified by every existing member. That means the UK has a veto as long as it is a member state. The UK has supported Turkey in the past, but in its present disregard for democracy it does not meet the requirements of membership.

The governments of many member states have the bad habit of wanting Brussels to take necessary but unpopular decisions. They vote for them in the Council of Ministers, and then announce to their national media that Brussels has forced them to do something. This habit is now coming back to bite us all.

On the economy if we leave the EU

A lot of claims have been made on both sides of the argument. They boil down to a hope that, if separated from the EU, the UK economy will boom. Or to a fear that the economy will suffer if it loses access to the Single Market. Individual businessmen have said how they think any change would affect their business. Most seem to believe leaving would be bad for their business.

The evidence we have is that the pound has fallen on two occasions recently. The first was when the date of the referendum was announced. The second was today when opinion polls showed a majority for leave. The most likely reason in each case is because the market fears uncertainty. Calling the referendum created uncertainty as to the outcome. This uncertainty can be resolved by a decision to remain. If the decision is to leave, the terms of the UK’s relationship, if any, with the EU would need to be negotiated. That would cause the uncertainty to last as long as the negotiations do.

A lower pound means prices go up. Those who do not have much money would have even less. They above all cannot afford a leave vote. The majority of businesses prefer to remain, precisely because they can continue trading as they do now. Leaving would mean no more investment until the relationship with Europe becomes clear, which could take years.

The head of the NHS in England has said that a weaker economy would mean less money for the NHS. The leave campaign is ignoring the economic consequences of leaving the EU. It is behaving like a political party in offering a manifesto for what it would do after a leave vote. But if it spends the money currently going to Brussels on putting right our NHS, it cannot spend the same money on our farmers and scientists. It has no credible way of replacing what the EU spends in the UK, when the UK economy is suffering from prolonged uncertainty.

A referendum has to take a decision. The UK will remain in the EU or not. No referendum can elect a government. The UK has just elected a government, and there is no sign that most MPs are looking to elect another. How the present government would respond to a decision to leave is unclear, but more austerity is likely. If it does have to negotiate leaving the EU, it would have the option of using the money currently sent to Brussels to reduce the deficit. It would be entirely consistent with George Osborne’s track record as Chancellor for him to do just that.

On people coming by boat

Today’s news of a boat with people attempting to enter the UK illegally confirms a point made before. The UK government has not done what it takes to make our borders secure. This is not the fault of the EU, indeed it was the French who alerted the British coastguards. The UK has a long coastline. It needs aerial observation and a properly resourced coastguard to police it. For the people smugglers, this is an easier route into the UK than the Channel Tunnel. But the Tunnel is not impossible. We have all seen footage of people clinging to the tops of lorries. No official can check those who get through.

We should be asking ourselves why people are willing to take such risks to get into the UK. Would they do so if they knew they could get a fair official hearing? Earlier in the refugee crisis, the Austrian Foreign Minister said that better legal routes had to be devised to manage the flow of people. By demanding travel documents policed by the airlines, train or ferry companies, the UK is pushing refugees into the arms of the people smugglers.

The UK has committed itself through the UN Geneva Convention to accept refugees fleeing for their lives. It has a proud record of doing so, most recently for the Uganda Asians. To make good on its commitments, the UK should interview all who wish to take refuge in the UK. This could be on arrival, or before leaving our immediate neighbours, or close to the country of origin. The Calais ‘jungle’ only came about because the UK did not have adequate arrangements to process people.

The truth made plain by the latest ‘boat people’ is that borders can never be 100% secure. The authorities must spend what it takes to make it unlikely that the borders can be bypassed. It should then be made as easy as possible for all to come to the official entry points. That way the authorities can determine who is a refugee, who is an economic migrant, and who is qualified to enter by their work skills. Free movement to work within the EU benefits British citizens, and gives another form of entry qualification.

What needs reforming in the EU? Part 3 (of 3)

I have interrupted the blogs on what needs reforming in the EU to discuss sovereignty and immigration. This is because, although claimed not to be, both are in fact fully within UK control. The UK agreed to free movement of labour as well as of capital because both benefit the UK. The other 27 member states accept the UK has the sovereign right to change its mind and leave both the EU and the Single Market. If the UK then wants to be part of the Single Market, it will have to accept its rules. These include free movement of labour, paying towards its costs, and having no say in making its rules. This is the same as for Norway and Switzerland.

What can be negotiated with the EU is what David Cameron has just negotiated. The other member states have confirmed that the Euro is not the currency of the EU. This ensures Eurozone members cannot impose their rules on the UK. They have also agreed an opt-out for the UK from ‘ever closer union’. This ensures the UK will not take part in any United States of Europe. It is now up to the UK government to do what it should have done decades ago for the British people. It will also have to deal with the consequences of immigration.

What still needs reforming in the EU is the attitude of political leaders in most member states. Most people in Europe support the European project as a mean of making war unthinkable. Those who have led that project have had a very top-down attitude to achieving it. They have put creating the structures of Europe before solving the problems their people want sorted. The UK is not the only country whose leaders prefer just to manage the economy and public finances. Constructing the Single Market with the necessary free movement of labour has highlighted all the long-standing infrastructure and social problems. That is why nationalism is on the rise in Europe. The rise of nationalism risks wrecking all the progress in building peace and prosperity which has been achieved since WWII.

Some of the EU’s politicians seem finally to have realised that Brexit is possible. They also see that the European project could unravel if it happens. If the UK decides to remain, it is very important that all governments start to address their own internal problems. This would be easier if at the same time they work together to make the EU more effective. Policy decisions in areas where the member states have agreed to cooperate would then be taken and implemented more rapidly. This work to reform decision-making in the EU will have the chance to happen, with British input, if we vote to remain on 23rd June.

On immigration

Those campaigning to leave the EU claim that this is the only way to prevent people coming into the UK. I would have two questions. First, is it a bad thing that other people want to come here to work? On the face of it, it means that there are plenty of jobs in the UK. Second, how would the NHS cope without workers from overseas?

In my experience, there are genuine concerns about immigration. They relate most often to fears about housing and jobs. Will immigrants crowd local people out of work? Will immigrants crowd local people out of homes? These fears are real, and come from years of British governments failing to sort the problems people have. Not enough homes have been built. Money has been pumped into mortgages. These two factors together make houses more expensive and price people out of the housing market. The affordable homes owned by councils were sold off, so they were not there for the next generation. The Tories now want to do the same thing to housing associations in England. Other infrastructure, like schools, hospitals and transport, has not kept pace with population changes. Local authorities have been starved of cash. They are now unable to act as proper local government but simply administer central government policy.

None of this is the fault of the EU. Nor would it change if the UK left the EU. Imagine the UK votes to leave on 23rd June, and stops paying money to the EU. Would the Treasury really spend this money on doing what no government has done for decades? It would be much more likely to use it all to pay down the deficit. That would be consistent with George Osborne’s policy of a smaller state.

Much the same applies to jobs. Everyone should have the opportunity to work. Some of the jobs, such as in agriculture, involve unsocial hours that not everyone is willing to accept. Others involve skills that not everyone has. Education should be about helping individuals to find out what they are good at, what they like doing, and which can be the basis of a long-term job. Everyone living in Britain should have these opportunities. In reality, there is a shortage of some types of skill, which is why some workers are hired from overseas. Some foreign workers are more ready to work for low pay at anti-social hours. Leaving the EU would just mean the UK would recruit workers from other foreign countries to fill the gaps in its job market. Helping British people into jobs needs a concerted effort to help them find what they can do in today’s job market, and give them the skills they need.

On British sovereignty

What those campaigning to leave the EU seem not to understand is that British sovereignty has not been lost. Signing a treaty is an agreement between states to do certain things. It can be repudiated, though this is rare. It is up to the individual states to do what the treaty says. The UK has not signed up to as much as other EU states, but has done what it has agreed to. Two apparently contrary examples show this. The first is on controlling our borders, the second about trade negotiations.

The UK did not sign the Schengen agreement, and opted out of it in the 1999 Amsterdam Treaty. The UK has therefore at all times been in full control of its borders. The fact that its governments have not spent enough on border control has nothing to do with the EU. It is the UK’s fault if its border staff cannot access lists of undesirable aliens and lets them in. It is the UK’s fault if it does not check who is leaving the country, and find out who is overstaying their visa. The Tories have chosen to set net migration targets, which cannot be measured, never mind met, on current staffing levels. If we knew who was leaving, we would know how long people coming to the UK stay.

On trade, all the member states have agreed that EU trade negotiations shall be conducted by a single person, the Trade Commissioner. This does not mean that the Trade Commissioner can do what she likes. She receives a negotiating brief with input from the Council of Ministers, the 28 heads of government. The brief also has input from the elected European Parliament. The European Parliament can refuse to ratify a draft treaty. The 2009 Lisbon Treaty further requires much greater input from national parliaments. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations with the USA have generated a lot of concern in many EU member states including the UK. In particular, people worry that the proposed arbitration arrangements may allow big US companies to put pressure on governments. The idea of companies avoiding having to settle disputes in the courts is not liked. France and Germany are so concerned that they have issued a joint statement that they want TTIP to be recognised as a ‘mixed’ agreement. This means it must be ratified by all 28 national parliaments and not just the European parliament. At the beginning of May, the relevant French minister was reported as saying he believed the talks had come to a halt. This shows that working together in Europe increases the public’s clout in negotiating with the world’s most powerful nation.

What Needs Reforming in the EU? Part 2.

When I started this blog, the national campaigns to remain or leave were both fairly over the top. That has become even worse today. The claims about the economy can only be confirmed if the UK votes to leave. Those about the UK having to support the Eurozone are simply false. Meantime in Austria, a Green candidate has been elected President. The British media could only hyperventilate about a possible win for the extreme right. None of this excitement brings any light.

The leave campaigners seem to have a vision of Britain making agreements on Britain’s terms. Imposing one side’s terms is not how real world deals are made. We will somehow have the same access to Europe as now but will keep our sovereignty. And yet those who want to leave Europe have been against the United Nations, giving aid to the Third World and taxation. They sound like wealthy individuals who accept no duty to others, and who want to pay no taxes.

What all countries agreed on after World War II was the need to prevent war. The first moves were global, and began with founding the United Nations (1945). British lawyers helped write the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the UN’s Refugee Convention (1951). The Council of Europe (1949) included the Soviet Union. But fear of Russian expansion after the Czech coup (1948) and Berlin airlift (1948-49) led to the creation of NATO (1949). Meantime, physical and economic reconstruction was helped by the US around the world. Europe including Britain benefited from Marshall aid (1948-52).

Everyone knew that both World Wars had started in Europe, with major power rivalry. What could be done to stop the same thing happening again? One possibility was building human links between the peoples of Europe. This inspired the twinning movement, from which grew the Council of European municipalities (1951). The founding fathers of the EU wanted to go further. Integrating national economies would make war physically unthinkable. Bringing the peoples of Europe together would make it humanly unthinkable too. They began with coal and steel (1951), which had been the ‘sinews of war’. They continued with the Common Market (1957). Mrs Thatcher supported further economic integration through the Single Market (1986), but not the added political dimension of the European Union (1992).

What has followed the creation of the EU has shown the strengths and weaknesses of the European project. The free movement of labour has given individuals including Britons experience of other countries. But the failure of national governments to provide infrastructure for their own population has created tensions. The free movement of capital has given opportunities to financial services, which were insufficiently regulated. Creating a single currency should involve greater co-ordination of taxation and a banking union. Germany in particular is not ready for this. The open borders policy has made tracking criminals harder, but allowed tourism to flourish. War between the member states is indeed unthinkable, but economic difficulties and the failure of governments to resolve existing problems have allowed a rise of national feeling. Voters are well aware of all this. The EU has a good record of cooperation where this is obviously sensible, as over climate change, enforcing competition rules on multinational businesses, and tracking down and arresting criminals. But in too many respects, cooperation has not been taken far enough.