Friday, 3 February 2017

"14 weeks of Annual Leave? Where do I sign up?": The Brexit White Paper

Hello one and all. The UK Government's finally gone and done it. The dreaded/virtuous deed of approving the Brexit Bill at the first reading. 114 MPs bravely decided to vote against the Bill, including Stella Creasy, Helen Hayes and David Lammy from the Labour Party. I'm a big fan of Stella and very much enjoyed her takedown of Oliver Letwin on BBC's Newsnight programme last week, where she argued that May's response had been fairly tepid at best and an example of unashamed appeasement at worst. Standing up for one's own moral principles is important, even when in a public position and the fact was that Trump's Muslim ban seemed discriminatory, ill thought out and the UK should not be seen to be backing it, even though the UK Government may desperately want a lucrative free-trade deal post-Brexit. I don't really put people before profit so I'd have been more like Justin Trudeau who showed that Canada is a welcoming, compassionate country who'll take in refugees and asylum seekers who genuinely need their help, regardless of their nationality or religious faith. Brexit may be happening but we must ensure that it doesn't lead to the UK becoming the bargain basement tax-haven capital of Europe, where key employment rights get burned by MPs who are working under the guise of cutting business "red tape" and where religious freedom laws are introduced allowing for discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity or religious faith, as seems to be currently happening in the US. I don't want Brexit to allow for the disintegration of universal employment laws, universal anti-discrimination laws (Equality Act 2010) or the disintegration of health and safety and environmental protections. If leaving the EU means cutting down on administrative paperwork that doesn't have an impact on an employee or student that's all well and good, but any regulation that protects students workers and employees from being harmed must be safeguarded.

With this in mind, I decided to take a look at the Brexit White Paper that was produced by Mrs May. Let's just say there were a few interesting sentences in there well worth flagging up:
  • May claims in her foreword that there are 65 million people backing her Brexit plan. That's an out and out lie. I for one remain to be convinced that her Brexit plan is the right one for the UK to follow.  
  • May claims that Parliament hasn't "felt sovereign" since being part of the EU....except that Parliament has been able to have its say on NHS funding, bringing in the draconian bedroom tax, cutting local government budgets and forcing councils to introduce precepts to cover local social care services, deciding to renew the Trident nuclear missile defence system...etc. Of course this is really code for- "we want to control borders and we'll sacrifice membership of the Single Market and be prepared to follow World Trade Organisation rules only if needs be" conservative rhetoric klaxon. So you want to control immigration numbers from the EU, I get it but don't claim that Parliament hasn't been sovereign since we've been in the EU. Extremely misleading.
  • The White Paper claims that the "acquis", the body of existing EU law will be converted into UK law but this will only be done "wherever practical and appropriate". So which directives cannot be translated directly into UK law? Are any of them relating to employment law, environmental law or health and safety law? I don't really want to wait until the Great Repeal Bill White Paper is released to find this out and hope Labour will push hard to make the Tories reveal their hand on this through the introduction of amendments to the Article 50 Bill.
  • Leaving the European Court of Justice mechanism makes sense to most but I don't think that the Government should portray the ECJ as an organisation that deliberately set out to subvert parliamentary sovereignty or that of the Supreme Court for malicious reasons. It's thanks to the ECJ that trans people can now be protected at work whilst they go through their Gender Reassignment Surgery (i.e. they can't be fired by an employer for using agreed time off to have GRS)- the P V S and Cornwall County Council landmark case (30 April 1996). I don't believe that such protections would have automatically become part of the Equality Act without serious lobbying in Parliament and considering there is currently no trans MP, it would have been a very hard battle. Nonetheless, the ECJ has also ruled against other countries in the UK's favour: e.g. the famous Commission v France case (13 December 2001) where France was forced to remove its ban on British beef following the BSE crisis. The UK Government wants to "establish a new mechanism" for solving disputes between the UK and EU which means further money being spent on bureaucracy. We don't yet know how that mechanism will work and whether the Supreme Court judges will be involved.
  • The White Paper talks about maintaining devolved powers for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland following Brexit; in fact there are indications that more powers will be devolved but we don't know what those powers will involved. Nicola Sturgeon's already talked about wanting to keep Scotland in the EU Single Market but May seems adamant that the UK as a whole leave it. The Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations will allow for appropriate, frank discussion but I'm in no doubt that there could be a 2nd Independence Referendum drafted within the next few years by the SNP as they continue to vote against Brexit plans. The Welsh Government also favour staying in the EU single market so we shall see what happens over the coming months. The JMC will meet once a month and will be kept informed of negotiation developments which is sensible.
  • The White Paper shows once again there is no firm commitment to avoid having a hard border with Ireland...i.e. maintaining the Common Travel Area. It should be offered without question. Northern Irish and Irish citizens do not want a hard border which would restrict freedom of movement, not when 14,000 people go across the border on a regular basis to work or study. Not good enough.
  • The White Paper shows the Government continues to be obstructive to the idea of guaranteeing rights for workers and citizens from the EU. Yes it is right that there are expatriate groups looking at ways to maintain their rights in EU countries, especially around healthcare provision but the UK Government should have set the example and refused to treat citizens like political pawns. I have no sympathy for May on this point and remain disappointed that she did not have the moral courage to do this. One of the now numerous reasons why I will not vote for the Conservative party at the next General Election.
  • What is the Government's immigration control plan? I mean they must have some idea of what shape it may take post-Brexit. It's not going to be total free movement of people, so does that mean special visas, work permits a la Tier 2 immigration rules for potential employees hoping to work in the UK who come from outside the EU? Would there be quotas for specific industries such as the agricultural sector, scientific and technological research and development sector or for nurses/doctors in the NHS? Would quota numbers be extended in times of national staffing or skills shortages? Would any preference be given to Commonwealth citizens over non Commonwealth ones? Very frustrating lack of detail. 
  • The UK Government remains woefully inadequate at tackling the problem of exploitative gangs, agencies and businesses in the UK. It's good to see there is a NLW enforcement budget increase of £7 to £20m in the 2016/17 financial year but it's not enough increase penalties if such defective organisations are not being publically named and shamed for their shoddy treatment of workers, whether they are British born, from the EU or outside the EU and whether they came here legally or illegally. Why has it taken 6 years for the Conservatives to decide to appoint Director of Labour Market Enforcement and Exploitation? Are police forces, the UK Visas and Immigration Service, immigration charities and voluntary organisations going to receive more funding to help tackle exploitation in their local areas?
  • UK workers currently do not get 14 weeks of annual leave, yet the graphic in the White Paper suggests that we do. Perhaps the Labour party can hold May to account for this error and look at possible extensions to annual leave? I think Brexit could provide a very good opportunity to negotiate! It does show that the White Paper should have been prepared prior to the Supreme Court's ruling last week that Parliament should get a vote on triggering Article 50 and it betrays a certain sense of false entitlement from David Davis and the Department for Exiting the EU.
  • I personally don't trust the Conservatives to deliver on their pledge to get more worker representation into shareholder committees despite it being mentioned in the White Paper as an example of "strengthening employment rights". The tone has to be set by the largest firms and such mechanisms could have been devised beforehand. Would such representation happen at Sports Direct, RBS or ASDA, for example? It's great that a Green Paper has been published and a consultation period created but are entry level workers part of that consultation? Are the Government asking for the views of retail assistants, admin assistants, care workers, cleaners, call centre agents and bank cashiers or just focussing on getting the views of the CEOs, CFOs and shareholders who pretend to know what's in their employees' best interests?
  • The UK Government still thinks it can get a bespoke free trade deal with a customs arrangement so there is no need to put tariffs on imports or exports because of their "I'm Alright Jack" approach to the negotiations. Instead of focussing on tooting our own horn, maybe we should focus on the benefits of continued trade with EU countries. What goods and services do they provide that we particularly enjoy in the UK? French wines, German Salami, Tulips from the Netherlands, IKEA furniture from Sweden...just a few examples that I can think of that we should be thanking EU countries for providing for us. If we extol the virtues of other countries during the Brexit negotiations and pipe down on our own, maybe, just maybe we'd get a good customs agreement from the EU.
  • As explored in the Tory Government's Industrial Strategy (read my response to that here: ), the White Paper talks about the need for the UK to continue collaborating with the EU when it comes to research and development. Having spoken to friends from Sweden and Denmark who work in the research industry, their fears are not entirely allayed by the Government announcements and 2 of them are currently reconsidering whether to return back to Sweden or search for another PhD fellowship programme within the EU. It's funny that the Government continues to encourage research organisations to bid for funding through the Horizon 2020 programme. The Government has to adhere to its promise of underwriting such programmes, even after we leave the EU and to allocate funding where necessary to allow programmes to continue post Brexit.
  • I think the Government should go further RE guaranteeing student loans and home fee status for EU citizens starting courses in 2016/17 and 2017/18 by looking into what the international student course rates should be generally, including for those students from outside the EU post Brexit.  I feel international student fees should be the same as that for English and Welsh students on their course, taking into account the nature of that course. Bursaries should also be available to international students wanting to enter STEM jobs after undertaking their undergraduate degree and nursing bursaries should be reinstated and made available to any person wishing to become a nurse who is suitably qualified and physically capable of doing the job. I do not believe that international students should pay more on the basis of their nationality and this policy should have been reviewed beforehand. Controversial to some but it follows my belief that the higher education system should be accessible and fair to all, regardless of nationality and the type of course studied. Students should also be taken out of any quota system put in place by the UK Government post-Brexit (which is Labour's policy) because quite frankly they aren't immigrants. They are primarily here to study and if they do choose to stay here, especially if they work in our NHS or research and development sectors, we're all the better for it.
  • From my understanding of Section 11 of the White Paper on co-operation with the EU to reduce terrorism and crime, it seems that we are open to maintaining relations with Europol (good), participate in the European Arrest Warrant scheme (good) and the Schengen Information System II (an European wide alerts system to track wanted or suspected criminals...all good). The Government will need to maintain funding for those programmes to work; we can't just expect 27 EU countries to fund the administrative systems and the UK takes advantage of the data gleamed from that administrative process...hence why the chapter seems very vague. We are still a member of NATO (hopefully that won't change in my lifetime) and still participate in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) which has helped increase stability in Europe. I can't see the Government choosing to reduce sanctions against Russia as the US has unfortunately indicated that it might try to do, so at least on the face of it, we are united against fighting crime and terrorism.
  • The UK Government is still committed to establishing a transitional deal between the UK and Europe so that agreed changes can be phased in once Brexit has occurred. This is because the UK believes it would be "in our mutual interest". It's true that businesses will need to plan for Brexit by looking at their HR and procurement policies, especially if any immigration controls are to be introduced within the financial year following Brexit, but individuals, charities and voluntary organisations also need to plan for a post-Brexit UK. Depending on the tone of the negotiations (which would have been aided by toning down nationalistic rhetoric and guaranteeing the right to Remain for citizens from the EU) a suitable transitional agreement may be reached. I thought the last statement in this section was rather silly; no deal is not better than having even an adequate deal and perhaps the Government needs to swallow its pride a bit to ensure that a deal does happen and do some constructive listening rather than trying to dominate the discourse.
  • I find it funny that the White Paper talks about wanting to see a successful EU and putting down the main reason why we decide to leave as reclaiming parliamentary sovereignty- it was the whole "Take Back Control" jingoistic anti-immigration rhetoric that dominated the conversation. I've never been a "national self-determinist", nor will ever be, except perhaps in terms of being proud of having a mixed cultural identity that transverses geographical boundaries. Even then it's pretty split between being a Yellowbelly and having Irish and Norwegian-Swedish heritage. I still remain unconvinced that Brexit will help me in any shape or fact it may cost me more to travel to meet friends in Sweden or buy my favourite German Salami from ASDA. This is why a Tory style Brexit with the kind of bloated rhetoric as found in this White Paper doesn't sway me into believing Brexit is a "must" for our country. I'm more inclined at the moment to agree with Labour's view that Parliament must get a "meaningful vote" on the Brexit deal so that PM May can be told to go back and get better conditions from the EU should Parliament vote No on it and I still like the Lib Dem and Green proposal for a 2nd Referendum on the terms of the deal if May is reluctant to allow Parliament that proper vote.

After reading the White Paper, I'm still disappointed in the Government's approach to the Brexit negotiations, especially in relation to guaranteeing rights for citizens and workers from the EU and a "I'm Alright Jack" approach which extols the virtues of UK exporting but doesn't exactly praise enough the contribution made by citizens and workers from the EU who are not employed in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) sectors. Besides, I still feel as if Brexit will not make a difference to me in my daily life that is positive. I can't see how Brexit will increase wages for workers- you need to increase the NLW. I can't see how Brexit will help increase funding arts and heritage projects in Lincoln so that more community theatre shows that help build cohesiveness can be put on. I can't see how Brexit will help reduce bed blocking on NHS wards because we need to fund our Social Care services to allow people to be nursed adequately at home.  The promise of £350m extra a week for the NHS was built on a Vote Leave campaign lie so I'm not hopeful of seeing funding that is saved from not contributing to the EU budget being spent on frontline NHS services any time soon. Brexit is happening but I fail to see how it'll benefit me individually or my family or local community, I won't back the Tory led process 100%...maybe not even 50%. Instead, I'll focus on holding the Tories to account on their domestic record. I'll be fighting for more funding to be given to frontline staff in our overstretched hospital trusts in England and Wales. I'll be campaigning hard to bring an end to the draconian Bedroom Tax and make sure the benefit sanction system is fair. I'll be looking at ways to help promote our comprehensive school system and highlight the fantastic work of migrants from the EU and beyond who contribute hugely to our economy, society and culture but rarely get listened to and rarely get the recognition they deserve. Their voices deserve to be heard throughout this negotiation process just as much as a British born working class person from Hull.

So you see, Brexit  may be happening but I'm not going to act as if it's inclusive of people like me. Not until May fulfills my Brexit demand and guarantees the right for citizens and workers from the EU to stay here permanently with full legal protections. That's unlikely to happen for some time.