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Editorial View

Submitted by on 16 Sep 2011 – 13:24

Sir Graham Watson MEPSir Graham Watson MEP, Editor, Government Gazette

One might sum up the focus of Autumn’s political agenda for the UK and beyond as being about ‘recovery’ and ‘restoring confidence’ – more often than not these terms are more associated with economic discussion – but at present such rhetoric is in keeping with both the economic and non-economic political agendas of the UK and beyond, and these terms certainly resonate with more than just economics in the UK.

For the UK, the summer months have brought two national tragedies that have sparked a range of socio-political debate. The phone hacking scandal at News International and widespread civil disorder in our inner-cities have marred public confidence in the press, the effectiveness of our police service, and have generated a national feeling that sections of society have been over zealous. The task now for the government is to begin to restore public confidence in these institutions.

We have already seen efforts in relation to the press with the Prime Minister announcing that an independent judicial inquiry, the Leveson Inquiry, would soon begin with a wide ambit for consideration. The inquiry will be able to examine not only the claims of hacking by the News of the World but also alleged corruption involving the police and the press in investigating claims of phone hacking. The inquiry will also be investigating a subsidiary issue of the general culture and ethics of the British media. The summoning of James and Rupert Murdoch to appear before a House of Commons select committee to answer questions in relation to hacking at the News of the World was certainly unprecedented, with people huddling around television screens to watch BBC Parliament in a way only replicated by a World Cup.

In the wake of inner city riots and disorder the public and politicians are asking questions about how the police responded to disorder in London and elsewhere and what types of criminal sanction are the most appropriate for those convicted of offences connected with the wide-spread disorder. We are likely to see new preventative powers given to the police and possibly new public order powers given to senior police officers to combat disorder. Local Authorities are chewing over whether to impose welfare and benefit sanctions on those convicted of involvement in riots, but questions are being aksed about the effectiveness of such responses, and some are asking whether the government should concentrate its efforts on addressing socio-economic inequalities argued by some to be the underlying causes of civil unrest in the UK’s most deprived areas.

Restoring public confidence in the state’s ability to control widespread criminality will be high on the poltical agenda but where does confidence lack? – is it simply a lack of confidence in the crime prevention capabilities of our police service? Or a wider lack of confidence in the state’s ability to address root causes of inequality and low levels of social mobility?

There will inevitably be calls from Labour to ease the pace of the coalition’s programme for deficit reduction, particularly as concerns over police numbers, and therefore their capabilities, take centre stage after this summer’s nation-wide riots and disorder. If the debate between George Osborne and Ed Balls at the mid-summer recall of Parliament is anything to go by these divisions over the speed and degree of government spending cuts are sure to be played out during the autumn party conference season against a back drop of public unrest.

The riots and disorder that have affected communities across England have now in the eyes of both government and opposition, vindicated aspects of their policy arguments. For the coalition, a culture of welfare dependency, long-term unemployment and an absence of moral and/or family values in Britain have lead to a situation where young people feel it is ok to participate in riots and disorder. For the opposition, the fact that people are taking part in disorder and criminality is to a degree indicative of a lack of social mobility, employment and education opportunities, and future investment in communities – all of which they argue will be worsened by spending cuts across government departments.

Turning abroad to Europe and elsewhere ‘restoring confidence’ and ‘recovery’ are at the top of the political agenda. Confidence in European markets has been continuing to diminish as a result of the financial crisis in the Eurozone, and with slow economic growth reported in more robust eurozone countries, like Germany, there is concern about the sustainability of European financial integration.  We are seeing more stringent steps to stabilise economies in countries like Italy, Spain and Greece with tougher austerity measures, but Eurozone leaders undoubtedly have to make decisions for the long term and reaching a consensus will be crucial in ensuring that not only the Eurozone as a whole but individual sovereign states get on the way to recovery. It must be said that the Euro remains a strong currency that continues to perform well against Sterling and the Dollar. As long as leaders can be seen to be taking full control of the situation, the markets will remain moderately stable.

Perhaps the most forgotten or little discussed item on this autumn’s political agenda in the UK will be long overdue constitutional reform. A long standing Liberal Democrat policy to introduce elections to the House of Lords has come to life with a white paper and draft bill being debated by parliament shortly before the summer recess. The deputy prime minister has unveiled plans to introduce an 80 – 100% elected senate on the basis of PR. The white paper and bill mark a turning point in our country’s constitutional history as the debate over whether the second should be elected has gone on for over 100 years.

I would envisage a turbulent but likely passage through Parliament for the bill introducing elections to the House of Lords. The coalition has a comfortable majority and conservative MPs, although sceptical of the plans, are unlikely to rebel given that many of them will be hoping to be reselected by constituency associations in 2015, albeit by a smaller number of constituency associations as the House of Commons will be reduced by 50 seats at the next general election. As for a reforming bill in the Lords the government may have to use the Parliament Acts.

At home social issues are high on the political agenda, there has been much food for thought to digest over the summer and the autumn will no doubt bring an array of political intervention. Abroad we see economic issues high on the political agenda, our fellow Europeans on the continent will be aware of the financial problems in the Eurozone and will be looking for political leaders to agree a durable solution that will lead stabilise the shared European economy and improve confidence in the markets.