Revealed: Letter shows UK govt indifference to European voters

Things couldn't have gone much worse at the European elections, on a basic democratic level. The British government insisted on a strict definition of EU bureaucratic requirements, leading to many European citizens being turned away from polling booths and denied their vote. It was an appalling sight.

And now we know something else: British authorities barely even bothered to use or transmit the data that was apparently so important it justified disenfranchising them. A letter seen by Politics.co.uk from the Dutch Interior Ministry reveals a staggeringly inept behind-the-scenes UK operation which raises questions about the government's motivations for enforcing the rules in the first place.

The UK insisted on two requirements from EU citizens before they could vote last May. First, they needed to be on the electoral roll. Second, they needed an extra declaration, called UC1, which confirmed that they were choosing to vote in the UK rather than the country they're from. The deadline for that form was May 7th, over two weeks before the vote. This needed to be physically mailed - not emailed or filled-in online - to a local electoral registration officer. It was an absurd and prohibitive faff.

When Cabinet Office minister Kevin Foster was asked if perhaps European citizens could fill out the form at polling stations, he insisted that the government really did need to stick to the very strictest definition of the rules. "The latest date in which an EU citizen can submit a European parliament voter registration form to register as an elector in the European parliament elections is 12 working days before the date of the election," he said, personable as ever. "The 12 working day deadline is based on two provisions relating to the application process and the publication of, and alterations to, the register before the election." So no wriggle-room there.

Many people never even knew this form existed. The need for it wasn't advertised. Electoral registration officers didn't send it out. A few campaign groups tried to make some noise on social media, but there was nothing from government. Others heard about the form after the deadline, or sent it off on the deadline, meaning it wouldn't get in on time, or they did everything right but their council didn't handle them anyway.

The end result was the same. Countless European citizens, who had spent three years living in uncertainty due to a referendum they didn't even have a right to participate in, were disenfranchised once again. Insult upon insult.

That was a democratic crime scene. And just like any crime scene, it started to throw up new bits of forensic evidence the longer it was examined.

The latest comes from the Dutch Interior Ministry. They were asked whether they received the UC1 data from Britain. The answer was extremely revealing.

Only 200 local registration officials, out of over 380, sent the data. Even where they did get it, Dutch authorities were unable to process it, either because it was technically unreadable or due to missing key data points, including date of birth and full first name. It was completely unusable.

And here's the kicker: The Dutch complained of the exact same problem in 2014. And the British government did nothing about it. They'd had five years to fix it and they sat on their hands. 

What a chasm there is between what the government demanded of European citizens and how it behaved itself once it disenfranchised them. The requirements on them were stringent and demanding - letters to be filled out and sent on, information which was barely released having to be followed to the letter. And all, they said, because they were really committed to sticking to the absolute letter of the EU rules.

But then there was their behaviour behind the scenes: Data that wasn't sent on, and no-one even bothering to make it processable or even technically accessible. 

It's an extremely revealing gap. It tells you everything you need to know about their priorities. Groups representing EU migrants are currently crowdfunding to launch a legal case against the government over their disenfranchisement at the elections. Hopefully they'll succeed and that democratic crime scene can keep being investigated.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

The trade remedies problem: Brexit no-deal plan in disarray

All the little Brexit Gremlins are in the bits too boring to think about.

Take trade remedies. This is ostensibly a pretty tedious bit of law. They're the mechanism we use under the WTO to counter dumping or subsidies by other countries.

Dumping is when a product is sold more cheaply in another country than where it is made, in a bid to wipe out the competition and establish a monopoly. Subsidies are when the state funnels cash into an industry to allow it to outperform its competitors. They both highlight a risk of global free trade: sometimes other countries don't fight fair.

Trade remedies provide a defence. They mean that we can calculate how much the dumping or subsidy action costs our domestic producers, and then put up our tariffs accordingly. It's called a countervailing measure for subsidies and an anti-dumping duty for dumping. The EU has a few dozen of these.

Not the most exciting thing in the world. But if you get it wrong, British industry gets hammered. China is producing just under a billion tonnes of steel a year, an unparalleled industrial record. British domestic production can't withstand that without protection. This is why you need to be careful and well-prepared in your trade policy and not run around drunk on low-grade mezcal, messing with all the levers of the country's trading system.

But predictably, Brexit Britain took the mezcal route. Reports emerging from the government's trade remedies body paint a depressingly familiar story: There isn't enough experience, they're badly out of their depth, and those who question policy are frozen out altogether. 

The government's basic plan for trade remedies in the event of no-deal is pretty simple: copy them. Just take the EU's countervailing measures and adopt them wholesale. But they have a problem: you can't actually do it. The calculations about dumping and subsidies which the EU used were made for the EU. The UK needs them to be based on the UK.

So they're doing the only thing they possibly can: keeping the tariffs where they are, then setting up assessments of dumping and subsidies after-the-fact, so that they can justify them in court. All fair enough. There really wasn't another course of action open to them.

But that means that they really need to get these assessments right. There are lots of countries with a very large financial incentive to legally challenge British decisions in this area. They absolutely will take action, and they can do so at two levels: internationally at the WTO and domestically in the upper tax tribunal.

The first isn't too much of a worry. The WTO is slow. But the upper tribunal is here in the UK. It'll be much faster. And it will be able to pay careful attention to the manner in which these decisions were arrived at, because the mechanics for doing so - copied over from the WTO - were in last year's Taxation Act.

This is where you need to start dotting your i's and crossing your t's. If you don't do these assessments right, the ensuing legal challenge will succeed, and that puts British industry in danger. 

Unfortunately - but entirely predictably - the government's trade remedy assessments look like they are in complete disarray.

The problems started during the battle between parliament and the government. Since the start of the year, the government has simply stopped putting legislation through the Commons, because it is petrified that MPs will use it as a vehicle to stop no-deal. Its entire legislative agenda has basically screeched to a halt,

One of the legal victims is the Trade Remedies Authority, which was supposed to be established in the trade bill. Not anymore. The trade bill is now on life support and the authority could never be established. Instead, they've come up with hastily-scrambled together back-up solution: a trade remedies 'directorate' inside the Department for International Trade.

It's all they can do, given they've given up on trying to actually pass laws. But there are consequences. When countries launch cases against the UK tariffs, this is a fact they're undoubtedly going to bring up. After all, Britain's own legislation says it needed a Trade Remedies Authority to do the work and here it is instead with some directorate thing it cobbled together because it's terrified of its own parliament. The whole thing's a shambles.

Then there's the staffing problem. The people they need for a trade remedies body are highly-skilled, very well remunerated, in short supply and mostly don't live in the UK. After all, no-one in Britain has needed to do this work for decades, it's all been handled in Brussels. You have to get them from overseas - probably from Brussels, America, Australia or New Zealand. And that means you have to make it financially attractive.

The pay offer ranged from around £35,000 to £60,000, depending on the civil service grade. These are decent salaries, but way below what these kinds of people would be paid in their current jobs.

The office was set up in Reading. It's a nice place, but if you're trying to tempt people over from Belgium or Australia, then London would be a more compelling and natural offer.

Maybe some people would have taken the pay cut anyway. They might have been intellectually fascinated by it, or believed in it, or thought it would have been worth it for the experience But then there was a further disincentive: it wasn't clear they'd even be doing the work.

If there was a withdrawal agreement, the trade remedies work might be delayed during transition. If Britain stayed in the customs union, it'd never be done. The UK government was basically offering people a pay cut to twiddle their thumbs in Reading for three years, with no guarantees they'd ever do the work at the end of it.

Even with these restrictions, the recruitment process was extremely poor. Some applicants didn't even know what trade remedies were when they interviewed for the job and the details of the work were not brought up during the application process. Some thought the phrase just meant general trade-related projects. Most have no prior experience in the area.

They are lacking in accountants, which is really the main thing you want in this work, and many senior figures are from completely disconnected backgrounds.

Lots of the key members of staff trained to do the trade remedies work have simply drifted off to do other things - some to the Foreign Office, some to the Treasury. Those left behind are frequently denied access to information, held by the department, on which it based its decision to maintain the EU tariffs in the first place.

Staff who complain that the approach being taken is clearly inadequate report being frozen out and even dismissed. They describe the same cult-like mindset evident elsewhere in the government: a culture of forced support for the policy no matter the evidence, a hatred of criticism, and the belief that the solution to practical problems is to believe harder.

But the work they're being asked to do cannot be resolved by faith. It is incredibly detailed and complicated.

You need to send off massive questionnaires to UK and target-country companies, on everything from rainbow trout, to ironing boards, to fertiliser. You then need to work out the endless product subcategories and compile them for price assessment: Smoked trout, or freshwater, or frozen? Filleted or non-filleted? Then you need to conduct verification checks at UK and target-country factories, calculate factory price-point, UK price-point and shipping costs. That proves dumping.

Next you have to prove injury. You need to show UK companies have been affected. And not just that, but specifically affected by the dumping of these specific products from this specific country. If you claim the dumping is from Turkey, but it transpires UK companies are losing out because of fish from Denmark, then you have a problem. The same process goes for subsidies.

Get this wrong and we're in trouble. The domestic challenge will basically be a judicial review case. If things are done sloppily, they won't survive it. You need to show decisions were well taken, the law correctly understood, and sensible back-up measures initiated. If there are staffing errors, if you've misunderstood the law, if your reasoning does not withstand scrutiny, the case will go against you.

These are the kinds of things you look at if you really care about and want to protect British workers rather than just pay lip-service to them. Instead, we have ignored these challenges, acted more like a priest than a scientist, and dismissed those who raise objections. All the worst features of the Brexit debate are there, like DNA, from the very top, down to the smallest parts.

A Department for International Trade spokesperson said: "The UK's new trade remedies system has been operationally ready since before the original Brexit deadline on 29th March, to ensure that UK businesses would be  protected from injury caused by unfair trading practices as soon as we leave the European Union.

"We have built a team of over 100 staff that have highly relevant experience and have undergone a comprehensive training programme. There is a positive and engaged workforce and staff satisfaction rates are well above the civil service average."

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold

Really monstrous week, this one. Even by the usual standards, which are very poor indeed, it was acutely bad.

There came a point, around Thursday morning, when whichever way you looked you found behaviour which was so abysmal, so lacking in anything like basic moral or patriotic decency, that your instinct was to try and switch the country off-and-on again, in some desperate hope that we might reset to a better place. But there is no switch. There's no escape. We're stuck here. And only really serious drinking or political activism is going to change it.

It began, of course, with that diplomatic leak, detailing the entirely reasonable assessments from British ambassador Kim Darroch of Trump's White House. It went straight to Brexit-campaigning journalist Isabel Oakeshott, was then used to as a self-promotion campaign by Nigel Farage, and led to an outburst of the usual emotional inadequacy from the US president. So far, so normal. Everyone acting as they usually do. Britain, which offered Trump the full state honours a few weeks back, now blocked from high-level diplomatic contact with its supposed ally.

And then the story reached Boris Johnson. He was the new element. After all, he'll likely be prime minister before the end of the month. He was repeatedly asked if he would stand by the ambassador. And after a bit of babble praising Trump it was quite clear he would not. Darroch watched that performance and then handed in his resignation. He couldn't do the job without political support from Downing Street.

The American president had as good as fired the British ambassador. Johnson's campaign chair in Scotland, Ross Thompson, basically admitted it. "The game was up when the president of the United States himself, rightly or wrongly, said he could no longer work with the British ambassador," he said. "That's when that then undermines the national interest of having a relationship with the US."

If you watch the video closely, you can see his face stretch and strain as he says the words, as if some inner part of his personality, some last bastion of personal conscience, is fighting against the obscenities coming out of his mouth. But the resistance falters. Out the words come.

The executive summary is that Britain is no longer independently appointing its own ambassadorial staff. Will this apply to all countries? No, of course not. It will apply to the United States, a country we have been in a subservient position to since the end of the war and who we are now to be utterly controlled by. It is a grim foreshadowing of what will come if Brexit succeeds.

The natural human instinct is to ask: what can be done? Who can stop Johnson from turning the country into a vassal state? What can the opposition do to try and protect the core constitutional functions of Britain against the deranged form of Tory Trotskyism which has overtaken the governing party?

But things are, if anything, even worse over there. To observe Labour this week was to feel as if you had somehow dirtied yourself, like you'd stained your clothes just by reading about them. After you'd finished an article you'd stare down and be amazed by the fact you were still actually physically clean.

On Wednesday evening, Panorama broadcast an account of the party's anti-semitism problem. It showed several young party officials to be distressed, haunted, traumatised, driven to depression and even suicidal thoughts, by what they'd gone through. It showed a party high command which auto-defined anyone questioning their behaviour as a factional enemy - "Blairites", obviously, because that apparently is the worst thing in the world. It showed a party where anti-semitism had begun to run rampant.

The leadership singularly failed to put in place an effective disciplinary system for these issues, either because it did not understand them, or because it didn't care enough, or because some of the stain of those sentiments exists there as well. Pick one of those options. It has to be one of them.

The response of Labour, with grim inevitability, was to attack the programme before it had even aired, then paint the people speaking out as figures with axes to grind. It wouldn't put up anyone from the party to actually answer the charges, so instead the airwaves were full of its so-called 'media outriders' - journalists whose views happen to coincide with whatever is most useful for the party high command. The most godawful sight.

It is like gazing into a black hole. There's no point looking for light in it. It's just straight-up darkness and a sense of collapse so strong that even gravity can't escape.

The leadership claimed it was doing something about it, but you could see the lie even as it was uttered. Every effort it made was to cover it up, hide the stories, conceal the evidence and impune the reputations of those who dared to talk about it. This is why the problem exists and why it grows. Because Corbyn's Labour considers everyone who criticises it - whether a voter, a journalist, a member, or an official - to be an enemy by definition. There can be no legitimate criticism, so none of the criticism is ever treated as legitimate.

Even when you're used to bad weeks in politics, this really was a new kind of low. It's an arms race in reverse. Neither government nor opposition functions, so both parties have felt free to get completely lost in their own terrible derangement. If Labour was even vaguely competent, a Tory leadership would be wary of becoming fully-owned by a foreign power. If the Tories weren't dismantling the country, Labour might feel more compelled to sort itself out.

It's like the British constitution turned in on itself: a system of checks and balances obliterated in a mutual suicide pact.

Get a drink. Get several. If you've read even one news story this week, you thoroughly deserve it.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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