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If the Queen Loved Her Subjects – TTIP and the Royal Prerogative

I am one of those who greatly fear the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). If passed it would represent a massive surrender of sovereignty to transnational corporations. To my mind the worst single aspect of TTIP is ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement), as Canada is now realising to its cost since ISDS was incorporated in NAFTA. How on earth can the judgement (which is not subject to appeal) of cabals of corporate lawyers sitting in secret be deemed fairer than the legal processes of the USA, the UK and European nations? The trouble is of course that developed nations have imposed ISDS on scores of ‘lesser’ nations. The last time I enquired, the UK was party to 94 bilateral agreements incorporating ISDS.

Our fears are of course stoked by the unprecedented level of secrecy around the negotiations. What leaks there have been have indicated that assurances about the NHS environmental protection etc. are entirely bogus. If when the negotiators had agreed a final text, it would be exposed to adequate public and legislative scrutiny before any nation ratifies the agreement it would be one thing; I guess a nation is entitled to freely and knowingly surrender irreversibly to corporate domination if it wishes. This is very far from the case of course.

The USA, which has traditionally been very protective of its sovereignty and its citizens, nevertheless in 1974 passed the Trade Act which established the fast track negotiating authority for trade agreements which is the authority of the President of the United States to negotiate international agreements that Congress can approve or disapprove but cannot amend or filibuster. Also called trade promotion authority (TPA) since 2002, fast track negotiating authority is a temporary and controversial power granted to the President by Congress. The authority was in effect from 1975 to 1994, pursuant to the Trade Act of 1974, and from 2002 to 2007 by the Trade Act of 2002. Although it expired for new agreements on July 1, 2007, it continued to apply to agreements already under negotiation until they were eventually passed into law in 2011. In 2012, the Obama administration began seeking renewal of the authority. Fortunately it has recently failed to secure the necessary 60% senate majority, but obviously this only gives us a short breathing space. It is understandable that if Congress were allowed to amend the agreement, the whole negotiating process would have to go back to square one; no trade deal would ever be concluded. However under fast tracking Congress has just 90 days to scrutinise, debate and agree an agreement it knows hardly anything about beforehand. Given the processes involved it is clearly impossible for Congress can scrutinise the agreement adequately. They have to trust the administration.

If the US arrangements are unsatisfactory, those in Britain are appalling; treaties are ratified by authority of an Order in Council. The Queen is asked to approve and by convention always agrees. There is the Ponsonby Rule by which the treaty text is laid before Parliament 21 sitting days before ratification. The only consequence of this that has ever arisen is that there may be an adjournment debate (in which MPs do not vote on the subject under discussion). The last instance of this that I am aware of is when the Marrakesh Agreement was ratified in 1994. Amongst other things this established the World Trade Organisation and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The Hansard record shows that the MPs participating in the debate did not have the faintest understanding of the issues involved. Just one consequence of GATS is the creeping privatisation of the NHS, something which subsequent governments have worked hard to conceal.

The use of the Royal Prerogative to ratify treaties may have made some sense in the 19th century in the days of Empire and gunboat diplomacy, but democracy aside the boot is now on the other foot. If Cameron, who can decide on a whim to accept or not accept a negotiating position, is facing Merkel or Obama both of whom have to satisfy their legislatures, who has the stronger negotiating position – surely not Cameron?

The authority of the monarch has become eroded over centuries, not by Act of Parliament, not by popular referendum, and not by any formal contract, only by convention. But conventions can change; new precedents can be created. It would be inconceivable for the Queen to refuse to ratify a particular treaty, but would it not be possible to say of TTIP for example, “This is such an important decision that I will not give you an answer until my parliament has delivered its verdict.” ?

It would of course be very unwise of her to spring this on the Privy Council at the point at which a decision is sought; she would have to announce her intention in advance. The Government would of course do all it could to head her off, but I am sure the Palace with care could forestall these attempts.

The biggest hold the establishment has over the Royal Family is finance, whether it be the size of the civil list or taxation; but it ought not to be a stranglehold. The Royal Family could well afford to economise drastically without hardship. In any case the establishment has an interest in retaining our ostentatious style of monarchy to distract attention from the reality of elective dictatorship. If the Queen really cared enough about the interests of her subjects, as I believe she did at the time of her coronation, she would not allow herself to be blackmailed by financial considerations.

Regrettably I believe she is most unlikely to take this course of action. She is too much conditioned by her upbringing and dependent on the advice of her no doubt highly conservative advisers. However if this could be sufficiently publicised, many more people could be alerted to the dangers of TTIP and the government, whose mandate depends on 36.9% of the vote (about 25% of those entitled to vote) might just listen.

TTIP – Can the Queen Do anything?

If TTIP goes through Britain will no longer in any real sense be a sovereign nation. Does the Queen have to passively preside over this? As things stand the decision for Britain to ratify is made by Order in Council. Ministers ask; the Queen to approve; by convention she always says ‘Yes’. It would of course be unacceptable for her to say ‘no I don’t want TTIP at any price'; but what if she said, ‘This is such an important decision that I decline to give you an answer on this or any other trade treaty until my parliament has given its verdict’ ? She would have to announce this publicly before the government had time to spin it or censor it, but it could be done.

This in itself would not stop TTIP but it would alert all those who have ignored the issue so far.

‘The austerity delusion is dead, unless you’re British,’ says Paul Krugman

see: http://rt.com/uk/254225-austerity-delusion-paul-krugman/?utm_source=browser&utm_medium=aplication_chrome&utm_campaign=chrome

and: http://www.theguardian.com/business/ng-interactive/2015/apr/29/the-austerity-delusion

It was the BBC wot Won it

As I write it is clear that the Tories will just have a majority, assuming Sinn Fein abstain. We always knew that the Murdoch press would throw their whole weight behind the Tories, but we should have been able to rely on the BBC to provide some balance. Not a bit of it; they have consistently parroted Tory lies and distortions. Any pretence that Britain is a democracy has to be abandoned.

Britain will pay a terrible price for this… the certainty of another banking crash which we will have to pay for, the collapse of the NHS and another 1000%b increase in the suicide rate, which will not of course be reported as such.

more later

House of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the 2015 General Election

The Prime Minister reacted with anger to the Bishops’ letter published today, see: http://www.welfareweekly.com/cameron-rejects-bishops-warning-against-scapegoating-people-on-benefits/ as did other Tories see, http://www.capitalbay.com/news/715836-church-tells-christians-how-they-should-vote-including-scrapping-trident-nuclear-deterrent.html.

It is true that the letter (see https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/02/house-of-bishops%27-pastoral-letter-on-the-2015-general-election.aspx for summary) broke the ‘rule’ that politics and religion do not mix, but did so in as non confrontational way as possible, not naming any party in particular. It is though a much needed attack on the ‘Westminster Village’ as a whole.

If there is one criticism I would make against the letter is that it fails to highlight the role of the mainstream media (including the BBC) in limiting the scope of political debate. Christians should be encouraged to seek other sources of information of which there are plenty.

The press release says,

‘In a pastoral letter from the House of Bishops to the people and parishes of the Church of England, the Bishops urge Christians to consider the question how can we “build the kind of society which many people say they want but which is not yet being expressed in the vision of any of the parties?”

The letter also encourages church members to engage in the political process ahead of the General Election and to put aside self-interest and vote for ‘the common good': “The privileges of living in a democracy mean that we should use our votes thoughtfully, prayerfully and with the good of others in mind, not just our own interests.”‘

Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) – GATS on steroids

I guess I have been slow to pick up on this agreement, which however seems only just to have hit AVAAZ.https://secure.avaaz.org/en/stop_tisa_en_eu_sas/?dSWzrab. Back in 1994 nations party to GATTS at the same time as establishing the WTO, made several agreements amongst which was GATS – ‘General Agreement on Trade in Services’, something that British governments have been remarkably coy about ever since. GATS is a framework agreement and negotiations on implementation went on for many years. They eventually stalled at the Doha round when India, China etc. sussed they were being shafted. By that time the US had already realised that the multilateral approach would not give them what they wanted so the shifted to the bilateral approach, starting with NAFTA, and moving on via many agreements with less powerful nations, to TPP and TTIP. All these bilaterals have adopted the secret courts (ISDS) and negotiations have become ever more secret, so we have total reliance on Wikileaks.

The best piece I have found so far is by Professor Jane Kelsey, Faculty of Law, University of Auckland, New Zealand, ‘Memorandum on Leaked TISA Financial Services Text’, 19 June 2014, https://wikileaks.org/tisa-financial/analysis.html. Please read it. One obvious implication is that people will no longer be able to rely on the state to provide a straightforward pension. More links via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_in_Services_Agreement.

Should the DWP have a duty of care to benefit claimants?

There have been many many stories of the appalling practices in Job Centres whereby benefit claimants are subject to quite disproportionate ‘sanctions’ for trivial and often invalid reasons. See for example http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/02/grieving-relative-confronts-dwp-minister-esther-mcvey-after-benefit-sanctionshttp://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/04/jobcentre-adviser-play-benefit-sanctions-angela-neville?CMP=share_btn_fb, and http://dwpunspun.org.uk/sanctions. Although there is mounting evidence for sanctions targets, employment minister Esther McVey continues to deny it.

These practices (which are being highlighted in the play ‘ Can this be England?’ see http://www.beechleaf.net/show_tell/production.html) are extraordinarily cruel resulting in some claimants committing suicide and some Job Centre staff who have not been totally de-humanised under intolerable pressure. I suppose they save the exchequer some money but they also in many cases discourage claimants from securing worthwhile jobs. It is difficult to get at the true facts because any Job Centre Staff who resign or are ‘eased out’ are pressured to sign confidentiality agreements. Assuming these targets exist, at what level are they set? If not set by ministers, what exactly are the pressures on civil servants to set them?

My suggestion is that there be primary legislation to assign a duty of care to the  DWP over all claimants. This should apply to all levels of staff up to the Secretary of State. I am not suggesting there should be no sanctions – just that they are fair, proportionate and likely to result in a good outcome, i.e. to persuade the claimant to make all reasonable attempts to secure a suitable job. I am not suggesting that benefit caps should not be applied; these are a matter for parliament. Of course it is just possible that harmful regulations are the subject of an order in parliament under the negative resolution procedure, though McVey’s denial seems to indicate otherwise. What happens in these cases is that the minister lays the order before parliament (without calling attention to its contents), and it comes into force in 40 days unless MPs successfully move a motion to oppose it. Such a challenge is very very rare. Since parliamentary scrutiny is almost always absent, the minister should not be able in such cases to throw the blame onto parliament.

Of course one has to be able to define what is meant by a duty of care in this case, but this could perhaps be left to the courts. They could hardly make things any worse than they are, and it would take the argument out of the hands of lying politicians.

It would not of course be easy to get such legislation passed, but if such a Bill were debated at all, or even supported by a petition it would be deservedly embarrassing to the government. After all if the culture is not the government’s fault they shoulod have nothing to fear from such legislation.

All thoughts welcome.

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