Soft Landing, not Soft Brexit

Soft Landing, not Soft Brexit

There has been plenty of coverage of the government position settled at a meeting of Cabinet last Friday at Chequers. Many think that this is a pragmatic starting point for the final rounds of negotiation with the EU. However most of the negative feedback cries betrayal but doesn’t really explain why the critic is against the deal, just that it is not Brexit. We have had a three page statement from the Prime Minister and now, a round of media articles and interviews but the detail comes next week in the White Paper. So rather than relying on the same journalists that both sides have been arguing are biased against remain/leave (delete where applicable), I rearranged my Saturday morning to go to a briefing in Downing Street to hear from those closest to the PM. On Monday I will attend another briefing with more colleagues and hear from the Prime Minister herself before reading with interest the White Paper when released. What I have heard so far satisfies me that whilst this approach is not where I would have wanted to be as someone who campaigned and voted for Leave, but is the most pragmatic offer that we can give at this stage.

When I was debating during the referendum campaign, the main pillars of the argument to leave were sovereignty – taking control and putting the UK parliament in control of our decisions, pooling sovereignty only when we chose to for our advantage; controlling immigration, so introducing a system that was fairer, allowing people with the skills and experience that we need and want into the UK no matter which country they were from rather than allowing unskilled economic migrants from parts of the EU with high youth unemployment to jump the queue and thirdly, to be able to expand our trade through ambitious free trade agreements with countries whose economies are booming and are predicted to become dominant in decades to come, all the time whilst keeping on friendly terms and continuing to trade with our closest partner, the 27 remaining countries of the EU, albeit their economy had been stagnating for the last decade and decreasing in size of our proportion of global trade. I was often asked what my Brexit looked like, to which I would always reply that I could tell them but that would preclude them from having a say. We were giving the government a mandate to leave and the way that we would leave would be arranged through debate and negotiation. So here is why I believe that this proposal fully meets the terms of the referendum in getting us out of the EU, rather than BRINO (Brexit in Name Only)

1. We will be leaving

Nothing changes in terms of our leaving date. We will still formally leave the EU on March 29th 2019. Assuming we reach a deal, we will have an implementation period, something that has already been agreed. This is simply to allow businesses to ready themselves for the trading arrangements that we agree. It’s not practical to reach a technical customs arrangement for example in April and expect businesses to be able to handle this just two months later. We need customs officers, particular technology in place. It’s complicated but deliverable with political will and a reasonable notice period. The agreement reached is that the implementation period will come to an end no later than December 31st 2020.

2. We will stop paying in large sums of money after we leave

The agreement that was completed last year means that we will be paying a final sum which includes the months of the implementation period and brings us to the end of the EU budgeting period that we were involved in preparing the budget for. However as we will be leaving the political organisations of the EU and will no longer be a member, there will be no huge membership fee to pay. Anything that we do end up paying will be based on our decision to buy into particular projects such as ERASMUS, the student exchange programme that comes with EU membership but is also open to third countries like Turkey and Taiwan. We can pick and choose which of these projects we join, if any. The money that we are then not spending on EU membership can be spent within the UK. Some of this will clearly replace the funding that is redistributed from the EU at present to farmers, universities and regeneration projects for example but again, we will decide where and how this is spent so it can be better targeted and spent more effectively.

3. Freedom of Movement will end

The automatic right of EU citizens to come to the UK to live will come to an end. The proposal talks about a mobility framework so that UK and EU citizens can continue to travel to each other’s territories, and apply for study and work. Travelling to each other’s territories is important so we don’t burden holidaymakers and travelling business people with a complicated visa application system, thus hindering travel. Applying for study and work is very different from having the right to walk in and study or work. There may be a preferential system for EU member states in this regard but only on the same basis as our top tier trading partners pushing for one in a free trade agreement, countries such as India, USA, Australia. So again, this is a visa system agreed as a sovereign government in exchange for preferential access to their markets and is reversable.

4. The European Court of Justice will no longer be the highest court in the UK

Once we leave, the Supreme Court will be the highest court in the UK, so UK courts will not refer cases to the ECJ. Clearly the EU will still have the ECJ as their highest arbiter. Ironically if the EU tried to change this at our request, the ECJ would strike the deal down as illegal under EU law. So in any trade disputes, each party will refer cases to their own court system. Our courts will keep an eye on case law set by the ECJ but will not be bound by it. They will try to ensure that they keep a common interpretation in cases where we are applying a common rulebook, such as disputes relating to the movement of goods. (Note, the European Court of Human Rights is a different body and entirely separate from the EU. It will remain.)

5. We will be leaving the CAP and CFP

We will no longer be subject to the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. This means that although we will have some agreed restrictions on exports of agricultural products to the EU and imports, we will not have the EU micromanaging our farmers telling them which crops to grow and how. In leaving the Common Fisheries Policy we can reclaim our fishing waters.

6. There will be no hard border in Ireland, nor will Northern Ireland be treated differently from the rest of the UK

There are no Free Trade Agreements anywhere in the world that completely get over the need for checks. This proposal avoids the demand from the EU that Northern Ireland be kept within the EU Customs Union. However the proposal would bring us to near-frictionless trade with the UK and EU working together on the phased introduction of a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement that would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the two. The UK would apply our set tariffs on goods coming to stay in the UK and the EU’s tariffs on goods passing through to the EU. In the vast majority of cases businesses would pay the right or no tariff upfront and otherwise through a repayment mechanism. It is estimated that only around 4% of businesses will have to engage in the repayment process.

7. We will be able to do our own independent trade deals

By completing this bespoke customs arrangement, we would be liberated to secure our own trade deals with the rest of the world. Some of the conditions of the proposal will mean that some of the deals may not be able to be comprehensive for all sectors. Common rules on agri-foods for example will mean that we would be unlikely to be able to bring in hormone-treated beef from Australia for example, but that would likely be controversial in itself when Parliament considers any agreement. Australia would be content with increasing the amount of non hormone-treated beef that it sells to the UK. The only area that we are proposing to have ‘dynamic alignment’ with the EU is around State Aid. We are proposing to commit to not reduce environmental standards or workers’ rights and a few key areas. Apart from these, we will be free to diverge away from EU rules on the understanding that this will have a consequence on our future trading arrangement with the EU from that time on. Again it is our sovereign decision. There may come a time when we are more confident as a nation to drift away from dependency on the European markets towards the emerging markets that are predicted to grow significantly. This agreement gives us a soft landing from undoing forty years of a constrained partnership with the EU and the ability to take off again in the future when we are ready and importantly, when we ourselves decide.

8. We are stepping up preparations for No Deal

I’ve always believed that a bespoke deal is by far the best option but that we should be confident enough and prepared to walk away with no deal. This gives some steel in our negotiating position. I am pleased that the government has recognised the need to build on the work that they have already been doing to prepare for a no deal scenario. It is the responsible thing to do in continuing preparations for a range of potential outcomes. There is only a short time before we are due to conclude talks so the government has agreed to step up such preparations.

This is not a perfect deal by any stretch of the imagination and there is much more to examine and to achieve. The common rulebook means that we don’t end up with a clean break from the EU. However in talks with businesses, it is clear that many will continue to keep to the EU rulebook anyway in order to keep their existing trading arrangements in place. We are not restricting ourselves in our services-based economy which represents 80% of our GDP and the vast majority of future opportunities. We will be aiming for arrangements on financial services that preserve the mutual benefits of integrated markets and protect financial stability. Much of the pipeline of regulation of financial services markets is on a global basis. These ties are not ideal but help get formalised access and move us on. We need to keep our eyes on the prize and get this deal done. The next stage will be to see if Michel Barnier can accept this, since we are cracking open a gap on the EU’s four treasured pillars of freedoms, the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour, but he would be well advised to understand the consequences of rejection. Whereas he is the custodian of the EU ideology, the leaders of the 27 member states will have far more of a view of the effect on jobs, prosperity and the political climate in their own countries if the 6th largest economy walks away.

Having campaigned to leave, I take my responsibility for getting through this seriously. So if you are taking a view, take the time to look at the whole picture first. It’s complicated, hence this isn’t a tweet or a Facebook post. People may be distracted (rightly) by the World Cup and getting Brexit fatigue but at this stage it’s about detail. The Prime Minister has done a remarkable job in the most difficult circumstances. There is enough in this proposal for me to back her and I look forward to the White Paper on Thursday.

Challenging Train Timetable Chaos

Challenging Train Timetable Chaos

The timetable changes across the country’s rail network was always going to be a challenge, with every scheduled train being reviewed rather than just piecemeal changes. However this was made an impossible task causing more misery for commuters by the seeming lack of preparation for this mammoth job. I raised the issue with the Secretary of State for Transport in Parliament last week but also had a chance to sit down with a representative from GTR, the train operating company that runs both Southern and Thameslink.

It would seem from both my feedback and his data that Thameslink is the service that has been particularly affected by these changes. The long term benefits to our part of the network of the new timetable were a reduction in the time to turn trains around, splitting and attaching them, especially at East Croydon. Network Rail co-ordinate all the timetabling supplied by the various operators and give final approval to the National Planning Process with around 12 weeks to go, thus allowing the companies three months to prepare. For some reason this was delayed until only three weeks before the changes. This meant that some infrastructure was not completed, some changes to depots were not in place and crucially the drivers’ programmes could not be completed in time.

This programme is completed in three stages. Firstly, the operator would work out how many drivers were needed in each depot so as to minimise travelling times at the beginning and end of shifts. Sometimes two or three drivers were being transported on a single train. Of course, if that is delayed, that has a knock-on effect on each of the services meant to be led by the drivers stuck on the train. Secondly, the drivers would have their ‘diagrams’, their overall shift routes, again to ensure they were as efficient as possible. This would be ‘optimised’, reviewed closely six or seven times to make sure they haven’t missed anything and only then would the drivers receive route-specific training should it be required. It is a safety requirement as laid down by the unions that a driver can only drive on routes that they have specifically been trained on, to familiarise themselves with signals, junctions, hazards etc. This training is typically around six accompanied trips in each direction along each route.

In trying to run a full service and train drivers, this is doubling up on the resources required, taking trained drivers off their job to bring on others so the problems are likely to go on for quite some time. New drivers are coming on stream each week, with GTR giving priority to the drivers who are already some way along their training. Whereas in previous years, GTR have had a chronic shortage of drivers, they now just about have enough, but not with the right training for the reasons explained.

GTR have been cancelling a number of services the day before which is clearly inconvenient enough. However, they are still having to cancel up to 150 services on the day itself which is causing even more frustration. My worry is that with the emergency timetable not due to be stable until mid-July, the overall situation is unlikely to improve for some time to come. One of the worst situations that affects constituents in Sutton is the total cancellation of the Wimbledon loop trains at peak times. I’ve raised this issue forcefully because it just cannot be acceptable for people whose livelihoods are dependent on getting to work on time should be put out with few realistic alternatives. GTR carry out a ‘gap analysis’ to try to minimise such lengthy gaps without a service so I will continue to push to ensure that this very significant gap is filled quickly. Because of this analysis it is always helpful when people are raising the matter of trains with me to let me know which services in particular they are most affected by. I’ve been complaining to and about GTR for some years now but in order to get each part right in the short term, the more focused I can be, the more productive the complaint I hope.

I welcome the Glaister review into how the process became such a shambles. I cannot believe that no-one decided to postpone the changes until the operators were ready, whatever the original reasons for the delay in approval. However it’s not feasible to go back to the original timetables now as all of the other services around the country that are less or not affected by the situation would be dragged into the problem. But at least we will get some answers. However as a commuter myself, I think that most people are less interested in which bit of the industry is to blame and more interested in us concentrating on getting their train running on time. I will continue to work to that end.

My conversations with Rohingya refugees

My conversations with Rohingya refugees

(This article originally appeared in the Times Red Box (paywall))

While the pressure from the international community has been intensifying on Myanmar, the border with Bangladesh remains a treacherous and congested route to safety for thousands of Rohingya fleeing for their lives.

As part of a week of social action with the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh, I have spent time with MPs and volunteers in and around the camps in Cox’s Bazar speaking to people who have been displaced from their burnt-out villages, aid workers and Bangladeshi government ministers.

One was a 60-year-old lady in Kutupalong refugee camp, holding her grandchild. Her son-in-law had been stabbed in front of them. Village children were beheaded. Other young boys had their genitals mutilated, suggesting that this was to stop the Rohingya population reproducing. In one of many health clinics at the camp, seeing an old man being treated for a deep gash, a young man was then brought in on a makeshift stretcher with blood pouring from his head. A family member told me that they were eating earlier that morning in Burma when they were attacked by men with axes and machetes. They escaped across the border and got treatment within hours at the camp.

Three days of solid rain have made the route across the border even more perilous. When we visited the Gundhum border area yesterday, 5,000 refugees were camping on a river bank in a designated “no man’s land” between Burma and Bangladesh, able to ford the river to get food. Arriving today after 24 hours of stormy weather, we saw a body being dragged out of the surging river which had risen by at least six feet.

A Bangladeshi soldier manning the border was frank, telling us how he had seen Burmese military digging there the previous week and drones being flown over the trees filming the refugees from the Burmese side. He had video of a lady who had lost her leg after stepping on a landmine four days before.

This is what the Bangladeshi authorities are having to deal with each day. Five thousand refugees are registering in Kutapalong every day. The Bangladeshi government has just allocated another 2,000 acres for the camp to expand. The area was so big, a lady with an ill four-year-old child was refusing to seek treatment because she was waiting for her husband who had gone to Cox’s Bazar to look for work. She feared that he would not be able to find them again in the sprawl.

There are 80,000 pregnant women in Cox’s Bazar and 13,000 orphans. Doctors said that they were treating mainly diarrhoea and malnutrition but saw several gunshot wounds. The authorities had taken to driving vans with loudhailers encouraging people to register so that they could get the help they needed. We saw makeshift camps that had become flooded. Even in the camps, 100 houses had been swept away in a landslide. As the forest is cut back further to provide more land for shelter, the bare earth is exposed to the heavy rain.

The authorities and NGOs are at breaking point but are working incredibly hard. They are reacting to a fast-moving situation with 420,000 refugees descending on a small, hard-pressed region. We saw the Union flag symbolising the contribution of UK Aid through the department for international development; the UN refugee agency, the International Organisation on Migrants; US Aid as well as support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, all trying to cope with this man-made crisis exacerbated by terrible weather conditions.

Their worst-case scenario is that all 1.3 million Rohingya come over the border, the best is that the Burmese military stops its disproportionate response to attacks from the minority militant group ARSA and support those who have lived in Myanmar for generations. There may be some instances of civil uprising. If there is, no one with any value for life can think the answer is the mass eradication of a whole community through such barbaric methods.

Although the violence has escalated, this is not a new problem. Kutapalong has been a camp for displaced people for at least two decades. We did need to hear stronger words from Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s state counsellor, in her speech this week but she is also right that the country needs to be looked at as a whole.

Terrible crimes against humanity have occurred in nearly every state in Burma over the past seven decades and the peace process is having an effect in many parts. The country has just seen the first chink of light with a return to being part of the international community once more. Side-lining Ms Suu Kyi at this stage risks that light being extinguished and a return to full military rule with little reporting of the atrocities that will surely continue.

The commander in chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, is the man who can stop this today. I hope that Britain will take a lead on drawing international attention to him with a view to bringing this dark chapter of Burmese history to an end so that the Rohingya community can return to its safe homeland and Myanmar can continue its journey of development. Alongside this, we must remember the humanity and daily struggle of these victims on both sides of the border.

St Helier is Safe now help to build a new local hospital

On Tuesday 7th September I have a public meeting in Sutton to discuss the future of local healthcare including both ensuring St Helier has a long future and the possibility of building a new specialist acute healthcare facility in Sutton.

Joining me will be Daniel Elkeles, Chief Executive of Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust who will outline the Trust’s vision for the coming years. We need you to get behind this. You can find out more information here.

Come along to the meeting, look at the video on the Trust’s website, Fill in one of our surveys. Please get involved and rather than just talk about saving St Helier, let’s do something together, speaking with one voice and go further.

To register for my public meeting, click here.

 

Emissions-based parking charges proposed

Emissions-based parking charges proposed

Tomorrow the deadline closes to have your say on changes to Controlled Parking Zone (CPZ) charges in Sutton.

The proposed scheme will base charges on the amount of emissions your car generates. I wrote about this last year when the proposal was introduced, and I believe it has some major flaws in it.

In particular, I am concerned that with the CPZ being in force during working hours, people who don’t take their cars to work, i.e. leaving them at home, means they will be penalised for not using it, which could result in more residents choosing to use their cars, leading to more emissions and cars on the road, which is exactly what the scheme is trying to avoid. In addition, it seems unfairly harsh on motorists who don’t have their own drives and need to park on the road, as they will have no opportunity to install electric charging points for their vehicles if they wanted to switch to an electric vehicle – again, as this scheme is trying to encourage.

Big vehicles, which use a lot of fuel, are more likely to be sitting in a garage or a driveway, whereas key workers such as nurses, who may not have a flash car but rely on it to get to work, are going to be more heavily hit by this scheme just because they don’t have a their own driveway or garage.

Just like the chaotic new bin collection scheme, this is an idea that Lib Dem-run Sutton Council has dredged up from many years ago – another example of it running out of ideas yet arrogant enough to push this through.. This was something being talked about when I was a councillor nearly a decade ago and nothing has changed.

To look at the plans in more detail, you can view the public notice here, and to have your say on the proposals, click here to respond to the consultation.

Make sure you have your say, especially if you live in a CPZ.

Getting the balance of social care right

Getting the balance of social care right

Given the concerns expressed over the last weekend about social care, it is important to explain the government’s plans properly, cutting through some of the political spin.

The Conservative manifesto includes our commitment to strengthen the social care system with more and sustainable funding to cope with the long-term pressures caused by the fact that we are living in an increasingly ageing society. After all, there will be two million more people over 75 years old in Britain over the next decade alone and a third more people aged 85-plus in 2024 than there were in 2014. Furthermore, the growing number of long-term conditions such as dementia is putting increasing pressure on the social care system. At the moment, elderly people in need of care face high costs and inadequate treatment, as well as the risk of seeing the assets they built up over a lifetime depleted to virtually nothing. I believe the social care system will collapse unless we make some important decisions now about how we fund it.

That is why we have to act. And it is why – to give people security – the government included in their plans, measures to make sure no one should have to sell their family home to pay for their immediate care needs. They have also said that they would protect a minimum of £100,000 of your savings so, however expensive your care, you will be able to pass something on to your family.

Most people don’t have to think about long term care and as a result it is important to understand how the present system operates, for despite the comments by some, care and support services in England have never been free. Right now, most people have to pay something towards their own care and some will already have to pay for all of the costs. The current lower limit, where all their remaining savings will not be used, is when savings fall to £23,250 at that point they will be on a sliding scale means test until their savings reach £14,000. For those in residential care the value of their house is taken into consideration as well.

Whilst local authorities may cover some or all of the cost of care in some circumstances, its help is “means-tested.” Right now whether you are in a Care Home or receiving support in your own home you will be expected to make a financial contribution. Furthermore, property has always been calculated in personal care package, evidenced by the existence of a “12 week disregard.” Worse, the present system can be a lottery, with some local authorities requiring the payment whilst the person needing care is in the home. This has often resulted in people having to sell their homes, causing real anxiety and worry to those who are in need of the care when the system should be supportive. These new proposals will bring an end to the need to sell your home whilst you are alive.

So, this plan would replace and in so doing improve the existing system where people often get poor quality care – and stand to lose almost all their savings and assets, including the family home. This plan addresses the worry people have when they have a loved one with a long-term condition, and they don’t know how they’re going to afford to care for them.

Furthermore, these proposals will be presented in the form of a Green Paper, (a government consultation document) and they provide the beginning of a solution to social care without increasing taxes on younger generations. That consultation will include an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs. Importantly everyone will get to comment on what is in the paper and the government will listen carefully to the concerns of all of you before setting the final policy.

But since the manifesto was published, the proposals have been subject to fake claims made by Jeremy Corbyn. It is sad that he has resorted to whipping up fear and scaremongering. That is why I hope Theresa May’s statement, that there will be an upper limit to the amount that people will have to contribute should reassure you that you will not eat into all of your savings and satisfy those who have been worried by some of the scaremongering from the Labour party.

So for the avoidance of doubt, let me reiterate:

  • We will make sure there will be an absolute limit on what people will need to pay for their care by capping the amount they will have to pay.
  • We will put more money into health and social care.
  • We will generate more money for social care by including the home into the test for people getting care in their own home. This is what already happens with people in residential care, and will mean people’s assets are treated equally wherever they are looked after.
  • We will protect people from the huge costs that can accumulate from elderly care, by protecting people’s assets up to a minimum of £100,000 from social care costs. This will be done with a capital floor that is four times the current level of protection of assets.
  • We will make sure no one has to sell their home within their lifetime to pay for care, by extending deferred payment agreements for people getting care in their own home. This will take the anxiety out of obtaining support.
  • We will improve the care people receive by improving co-operation between the NHS and the care system, relieve unnecessary and sometimes unhealthy stays in hospital, and examine how to make best use of specialist housing and new technology approaches that enable people to live independently, with dignity, for longer.
  • We will give people the right to request unpaid leave from work to care for a relative for up to a year, because the vast majority of care is provided informally, usually within the family.

For surely the greatest unfairness is if we dump the costs of social care on to our children, for this is the likely alternative. Despite all the scaremongering from Labour, that is what their proposals will do. Labour’s fantasy manifesto with over £10’s of billions of uncosted spending pledges will result in enormous tax increases. First, Jeremy Corbyn plans to drag some 3.9 million more homes, including half of all homes in London, into paying inheritance tax. Jeremy Corbyn has even said he could increase the basic rate of income tax for millions of people from 20 to 25 per cent to fund social care. So Labour will hit those families with heavy taxes, at the very point they might expect to receive the money from their parents.

I believe we save first and foremost so that we are not a burden on our children and so that we can all have a better than basic retirement without the need for our children to have to finance our support. Whatever is left over of our savings and capital, of course should go, if we wish it to our closest relatives

Our welfare reforms are getting more people into work and then ensuring they save through our recently introduced automatic enrolment scheme will make sure there are fewer people in future who fail to save sufficiently for their retirement, reducing the future burden on our children.

Theresa May has shown determination and boldness in tackling this issue head on, I believe she is right to do so, for the alternative is a Corbyn led government which will tax us so much that any thought of passing on savings to one’s children will become a folk memory.

I hope this explains what the government is proposing and reaffirms the fact that a full consultation will take place before any policy is put in place. I also hope that on 8th of June, you will balance this issue alongside the very real damage that a Corbyn led government – shored up by the Scots Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, The Greens and the Lib Dems, (in effect a coalition of chaos), would do to our country.

Whether you voted leave or remain in the referendum, I hope you will agree it is vital our government gets a good deal from the negotiations with the EU. Given that the Prime Minister will sit down with the EU to start those negotiations very soon,only Theresa May’s strong and stable leadership could achieve a good outcome for this great country of ours.