Thursday, December 17, 2009

We need to do more to find alternatives to animal testing

This week I am backing a campaign which if successful could lead to vastly increased funding for alternatives to animal testing.

I am calling on the European Commission to look at various options to increase the funding that goes into research on alternatives, including the viability of a 1% research levy on the selling price of products that contain ingredients that have been tested on animals.

I do understand that at present many researchers argue that some animal experiments are necessary to ensure the safety of products as there are no sufficient alternatives available. Therefore this proposal would go a long way to helping develop suitable alternatives. More information on the campaign can be found here

Monday, December 14, 2009

An open letter to David Cameron

Dear Mr Cameron,
At the start of the Copenhagen process on global climate change, you reassured us that the Conservative party is serious about curbing man-made global warming.

You tell us that your "front bench" view on climate change is the view that counts. But in Europe, this official party line is looking rather wobbly.

One of the leading Conservative experts on the environment, former MEP Caroline Jackson was among the first to sound the warning. She was sceptical of the 'green rebranding' of the Conservative party, "I think from the point of view of the Conservative Party, pursuing the green line is all talk and no action at the moment…when push comes to shove in the next General Election I suspect we will roll back from some of this”.

Other Conservative MEPs are busily proving her right. Roger Helmer MEP, an outspoken climate sceptic who sat on the European Parliament's Climate Change committee, told the Parliament's plenary earlier this year: "There is said to be a consensus around catastrophic man-made global warming. It (too) is wrong. Nor is it a consensus. The myth of consensus is a propaganda triumph for the Warmists."

Roger Helmer last week organised yet another event on the 'global climate change sceptics circuit' - a pre-Copenhagen briefing in the European Parliament, where a Dutch economist and a Viscount announced: "We are told that temperatures and sea levels are rising and the polar caps are melting. That is the bad news. The good news is that none of it is true."

Two weeks ago, Tory MEP Daniel Hannan suggested that the aim of the UN-driven Copenhagen talks - to bring in an international solution to an international problem - is somehow a conspiracy: "(The President of the European Council) Mr Van Rompuy declared that the Copenhagen Process would be a step towards the global management of our planet. We cannot be alone in being alarmed at the way in which the environmental agenda is being piggybacked by those who have a different agenda about the shifting of power away from national democracies."

Both MEPs voted to reject the European Parliament's resolution on the Copenhagen negotiations along with almost half of your Conservative Party's new European group.

Mr Cameron, you have attached historical importance to the Copenhagen summit. We know this may be our last chance to protect the planet.

The UK is going to Copenhagen as part of the European Union, with a common EU mandate. The denialist attitudes that your MEPs are propagating at the heart of Europe are at best, unhelpful, and at worst, dangerous. You recently threw a Conservative MEP out of your party for making a stand against the Conservatives' new allies in the European Parliament. Is climate change such a low priority for your party that climate saboteurs are given a free rein?

Glenis Willmott MEP
Linda McAvan MEP
and all other Labour MEPs

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Time for action

With climate change talks in Copenhagen upon us already the Socialist Group in the European Parliament have spelt out our key messages.

1 - Reduce emission
2 - Create jobs
3 - Fund developing countries

I spoke of this to Centre-Left leaders at a Party of European Socialists meeting on Monday.

I told them I felt proud of the achievements of Labour MEPs and the Socialist Group in the European Parliament. We put in place firm, practical measures that will see the EU's total emissions cut by 20% by 2020 based on 1990 levels and by a minimum 30% in the event of an international agreement at Copenhagen.

It is easy to say that this is too little, but we shouldn't forget that these are not just targets - but concrete legislative measures which demonstrate Europe's resolve and willingness and put us on a firm footing to go into these talks.

This will be key- as will financing. We simply will have no credibility if we cannot offer a meaningful and additional financial package to help the developing world - which has not had the benefit of our carbon-intensive development - to green their economies. And it must be additional to existing development aid commitments, not simply diverting money from pledges already made to help the world's poor.

It really is make or break time now and I am clear on the need to avoid a political fudge. What we need is an ambitious, comprehensive, legally enforceable agreement.

The time for words has long past.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Congratulations Cathy

I was delighted to see Cathy Ashton get the job of the EU's first Foreign Affairs High Representative last week. She is a great talent and extremely competent and I'm sure will prove to be the best person for the job. The fact that this job has gone to a Brit is in itself a coup. I have no doubt her quiet diplomacy (and the fact she is not an ego on legs) will prove to be very effective in adding value to Britain and the EU's role in the world.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Never let a crisis go to waste

I was in London on Monday speaking at a TUC event on the economic crisis. Alongside Larry Elliott of the Guardian, (Lord Professor) Richard Layard from LSE and Andrew Simms of the New Economic Foundation I spoke of how the present economic situation offers a huge opportunity to change our world for the better.

I think President Obama’s Chief of Staff said “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

Now is an opportunity to clear up some of the mess created by bankers and a lack of regulation.

I also spoke on the risk of isolationism and its threat to economic recovery.

It is international cooperation that is needed to deal with the economic crisis. Narrow nationalisms and a retreat to isolationism certainly won't provide the answers.

The European Parliament will be at the centre of much of the necessary reforms. As MEPs we will amend and enact legislation on hedge funds, private equity firms, capital adequacy requirements, and new European bodies to monitor systemic risk and the cross-border activities of banks, insurers and securities firms.

And it is Labour MEPs who will be at the forefront of these efforts with our two members on the Parliament's Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) Committee, Arlene McCarthy and Peter Skinner having been appointed as rapporteurs (MEP in charge of the legislation) of the key dossiers.

The poor old Tories failed to secure any key reports as quite frankly, having left the mainstream and allied themselves with the extreme fringes of the Parliament. This demonstrates their acute loss of influence in the Parliament.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Wall

Today in the European Parliament plenary we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This historic event led to the collapse of communism in the former eastern bloc and to a new era of democracy and prosperity and eventually to the present enlarged EU of 27 countries.

I find it truly amazing that today in the chamber I am sat side by side with good friends and colleagues from Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia who are now the democratically elected representatives from their respective countries which just 20 years ago were on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

It is a tribute to the soft power of the European Union that these countries are now grown-up democracies with respect for human rights and individual freedoms.

I am in no doubt that this would never have been possible without the European project, which, having served to bring peace to Western Europe following two bloody world wars, also served as a pivotal force to democratise and stabilise the countries of the former eastern bloc. It is this same incentive of membership, trade and market access which still serves as a catalyst for positive reform in both Europe and around the world. It does this around the world through the insertion of human rights and democracy clauses in the EU’s trade agreements with third countries desperate for preferential access to our European market of 450 million consumers. It does this in European countries such as Croatia, Turkey and the Ukraine through the incentive of membership. These countries are desperate to join the European Union; to enjoy the same benefits as we in the UK already enjoy, where 3 million jobs depend on our EU membership and we can solve common problems together, such as climate change, the global economic downturn, international terrorism and organized crime.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

From yesterday's debate...

Following on from my post yesterday on climate change here is a very interesting video from my colleague Linda McAvan, taken from yesterday's debate in the European Parliament. It shows just how similar the BNP and UKIP are and how out of touch with public opinion they are.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Copenhagen and climate change talks

Having seen the latest meeting of the Maldives cabinet held underwater to highlight the fact that it could be the first nation to sink below the waves, I spent yesterday evening in a long voting session on a European Parliament resolution, preparing the EU's strategy for the crucial climate change talks due to take place in Copenhagen in December.

As an active member of the Parliament's Environment Committee, I have been involved over the past few years in agreeing ambitious legislation to slash Europe's CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by 20% by 2020 or by a t least 30% in the event of an international agreement. It is on this firm ground that the EU is going in to these negotiations, as a leading player with established credentials.

I voted to support two fundamental points:

1. The need to maintain ambitious targets which should be a 25-40% reduction in emissions for developed countries compared to 1990 levels

2. Help for developing countries - Stressing the historical responsibility of developed countries and the obligation we have to assist developing and least developed countries to adapt their economies. This aid should be additional to existing commitments, not instead of.

I also believe that we need to enable as much technology transfer as possible to developing countries. This means sharing our low carbon technologies so they can reduce their own emissions in the most cost effective and painless way.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In Parliament this week

It's a full week here in Brussels, with both my committees sitting (Environment and Civil Liberties) as well as a mini-Plenary session.

On the agenda for the Plenary is a debate on calls for the establishment of an EU-wide fund to protect the passengers of failed airlines. This is of particular relevance to the UK, given the collapse last year of XL. I am backing a reserve compensation fund which all airlines should pay into in order to adequately compensate those passengers who lose out. I called for this exactly one year ago so it is pleasing to now see this on the European agenda.

We are also debating the outcome of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which is something which David Cameron is so far refusing to do at his own party conference.

And finally, Labour MEPs will be lending our support to a proposal which will ensure that people charged in cross-border criminal cases must not be charged twice for the same crime in two different Member States.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

An upbeat Party Conference

It's been a really busy week. I've been in Brighton for Party Conference, and in my new role as Leader of the EPLP I gave a speech this morning to the floor. You can watch it below:

I warned how Britain’s influence in the world would become weakened if a Conservative Government is returned at the next General Election, and highlighted that although David Cameron pretends that the toxic Tory brand has changed, all the time his Euro MPs are clear proof that it has not.

As for the general mood in Brighton - it has been upbeat and there is a real sense of fighting spirit and a determination not to sleepwalk into a general election defeat. The Tories are vulnerable when it comes to their policies and their stance towards Europe and it is the job of every one of us to expose this vulnerability starting from today.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Barroso is elected as new Commission President

Yesterday saw the culmination of weeks of discussions, speculation and gossip over the European Parliament's vote on the re-election of the Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso.

I had serious doubts based on the ex Portuguese Prime Minister's track record over the last 5 years. I have been a critic of his response to the economic crisis which lacked both strength and ambition. I wanted a stronger focus on tackling unemployment, and especially youth unemployment. I also believe that he has placed far too much emphasis on economic and market freedoms, to the detriment of workers rights - throughout the EU. The major issue here has been about the Posted Workers Directive (PWD). This is European employment law which allows companies to bring in staff from overseas on temporary contracts. I am firmly in favour of free movement of workers throughout the EU and indeed it is not a one-way street. Estimates put the number of Brits who are living and working abroad in the EU at up to 1.5 million, although I suspect the true figure is somewhat less.

The problem occurs when the working terms and conditions of local workers are undercut and undermined, including collective agreements between trade unions and employers. Recent European Court rulings have perverted the original intention of the Directive, allowing such agreements to be undermined by companies bringing in an entire workforce from another EU country. Labour MEPs and the Socialist Group in the European Parliament have been pressing the Commission for a review of the Posted Workers Directive to remedy the Court's judgement but it has been Barroso himself who has persistently refused such action.

I questioned him on this very issue, both in a private meeting with Socialist Group MEPs last week, and in a European Parliament debate on Tuesday (video above). His tune did change and he promised action but fell short of promising a full review of the directive. However it remained unclear as to whether his promises would be enough to overcome the damage of the Court rulings.

Therefore our group took the decision to abstain on the vote, given there was no other candidate to vote for. Mr Barroso did prevail with 53% of the vote - a narrow majority but one which relied on the support of a ragbag of eurosceptics. This outcome certainly does not leave him in a comfortable position for the next 5 years and he will be pressed all the way by Labour MEPs and the Socialist Group to deliver on his many promises and warm words.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hidden and rip-off airline charges

I'm currently campaigning to put an end to all the hidden and rip-off charges levied by airlines on their often unsuspecting passengers..such as myself!

On a flight out for my summer holiday I was stung for an extraordinarily large fee for excess baggage which I had not been aware of at the time of booking. It is easy to say that we should all check the small print at time of booking but this often runs to pages and pages of largely irrelevant information. In any case I did check the small print afterwards and to my surprise it didn't detail the charges. It mentioned, with a scandalous lack of precision, that fees for excess baggage would be "charged at prevailing rate at time of flight". I also noted that a hefty fee for paying by card is levied and that this fee is in fact largely unavoidable unless you have an obscure type of debit card which you would have to go out of your way to acquire. This fee was 4.4% of the cost of the flight! When you add to this the cost of checking in, paying for hold luggage and any other costs levied, the total amount paid can be many times that of the advertised rate.

I had already raised this issue over a year ago but now have come back to it with increased determination. I am asking for a clear and comprehensive set of guidelines for airlines operating within the European Union to ensure no more unsuspecting passengers are ripped off!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

An interesting opinion poll

I have just been handed an interesting opinion poll, looking at British public opinion towards the EU. The headline figure shows a fairly even distribution of opinion with 37% having a positive attitude to the EU, 40% a negative attitude and 17% neither positive nor negative.

But more interesting (and dismaying) is the figure which shows that over 83% of those polled said they knew little or nothing about the EU. That in itself is a damning indictment on the efforts of those of us who see the need for a strong Britain at the heart of a strong Europe and should set alarm bells ringing.

We need to be more effective in countering the negativity, distortions of fact and scaremongering which has become abundant. These untruths are peddled on a regular basis by those who falsely claim to represent our national interest and sadly they are blithely parroted by a considerable section of the British media, either too lazy to check out the facts or too biased to care.

This campaign of misinformation has lead to results in the poll which show that the average respondent believed that the UK's net contribution to the EU is 23% of gross national income. The actual figure is over 100 times less at 0.21%. Equally there is an acute lack of awareness that the UK government actually plays a hugely important role in deciding European laws. When asked how they would react if they were told that the UK government always has a say in the way EU laws are made, over 62% of respondents said it would make them feel more positive about UK membership of the EU. Implicit in this figure therefore is that at least 62% do not think the UK has a say in laws and that somehow they are decided by 'Brussels'.

Of course this is not true. The present UK government is in fact one of the most influential players when it comes to EU decision-making. The UK is at present an engaged, informed and highly influential member of the Council of Ministers. Rarely does legislation pass which has not been shaped and moulded by the UK and rarely will the UK ever be outvoted.

The poll also shows that public opinion does recognise the inescapable reality that so many of the major issues facing us can no longer be solved by nation states acting alone. Take climate change, protecting human rights, global poverty, security of energy supplies, global terrorism and the financial crisis. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed recognised that the EU has a key role to play in tackling these pressing issues.

These are not issues that can be resolved through a policy of distance and isolation. But this is precisely the rocky road that David Cameron and his UKIP brothers in arms would take our country down, given half a chance. He would lead the UK to the fringes, where his MEPs already find themselves. He would take us to a position where we would be powerless to tackle these issues. We would lose the power, influence and respect it has taken so long for the UK to build up among our European partners.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Not in my Name

Last week saw the fascist BNP shamefully take up their seats in the European Parliament. Together with Labour MEPs, I welcomed to Strasbourg GMB members and the 'Hope not Hate' campaign who were here to present a petition against the BNP called 'Not in my Name' -

Already the BNP has been making waves, with Nick Griffin suggesting the EU's immigration policy should consist of sinking immigrants' boats. He also betrayed his misogyny in calling my good friend and colleague Glenys Kinnock, the new Europe Minister, a "political prostitute". As an MEP and tireless campaigner Glenys has done so much for the people of Wales and to address the problem of poverty in the developing world.

The BNP claim to represent Britain but they do not. It is Labour MEPs who will stand up for British people and will do so with tolerance, respect for diversity and with a politics of inclusion, not division. I am determined to make sure that the BNP's stay in the European parliament is short lived.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Things are beginning to take shape

It's been an interesting week here in Strasbourg. We have been meeting to decide on the constitution of the new European Parliament and who gets the influential positions and membership of the Parliament's legislative committees.

For me, as leader of Labour MEPs it is the culmination of weeks of work, which began after the European elections, to get the very best possible outcome in terms of influence for our reduced group of Labour MEPs.

I believe I have done just that - we have a strong candidate for the Chair of the influential legislative Transport Committee, the highest-ranking vice-president of our European political group (Socialists & Democrats), as well as a strong presence, including a vice-chair, on the Economic and Monetary Affairs legislative committee - of vital importance given the huge reforms to our continental and global financial regulatory system which are now necessary in the wake of the global financial crisis. We will also be strongly represented on the influential Environment Committee at this most important time for tackling climate change and environmental pollution.

Our priorities are clear, we need to provide a strong voice where it matters most, on the important issues of today - global problems which can only be solved by European and global cooperation. I'm proud that Labour MEPs will be able to play such an influential role in shaping these vital decisions. Despite our reduced numbers we have retained our influence.

This contrasts remarkably with David Cameron's bedraggled Tory MEPs who don't know whether they are coming or going. Their influence, just at this crucial time, has plummeted. Their self-enforced exile from the mainstream centre-right grouping in the European Parliament (the EPP) means they have will have none of the key posts or allies necessary to build up support for their position. They are in disarray, with their most senior MEP, Edward McMillan-Scott leaving them and taking with him the only senior post they could have hoped to gain - that of Vice-President of the European Parliament. He stood for it as an independent candidate, and won the support of MEPs, eliminating the Tory group's own candidate in the process! And as if that wasn't bad enough, the disaster-prone Tories couldn't even win the chairmanship of the new parliamentary grouping they formed with the Polish and Czech right - that went to a Pole! In fact their whole group looks to be in danger of collapse - it would take just two MEPs to walk out for that to happen - a move that would see Conservative MEPs sitting alongside the likes of the BNP and the French Front National as non-attached MEPs.

The upshot is that the Tories, despite their superior numbers, have lost their influence due to a rash promise made by David Cameron back in 2005 in order to win the leadership of the Conservatives. While you might think that as leader of Labour MEPs I wouldn't be shedding too many tears, it does mean that on key issues of national interest, Britain's voice in the European Parliament will be under-represented and that is bad news for all of us.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A good day for mobile phone users

Two mobile phone-related pieces of good news today.

The first is a small, albeit important example this week of how common sense can prevail and how common rules can be beneficial and cost-saving.

The largest mobile phone manufacturers in Europe have "voluntarily" agreed to a universal standard phone charger , putting an end to the folly (both environmental and financial) of having different sized chargers for different makes and even different models of phone. I know I have accumulated a wide array of different sized chargers over the years which I no longer use and I imagine most other people are the same. To read some of the articles in the press today you would not know that this was in fact negotiated by the European Commission and the agreement was only possible due to the implicit threat of EU legislation should the manufacturers fail to agree.

The second piece of good news is that from today (July 1) legislation passed by the European Parliament means that mobile phone roaming charges within the EU will be reduced even further. The maximum cost of making a call when abroad in another EU country will be 39p a minute (€0.43) and the price of a text message will be capped at 9p (€0.11). Additionally data charges for e-mails and internet use on mobile phones should go down. Although no cap on the consumer price was set, the wholesale price (from mobile phone company to mobile phone company) will be capped at 85p (€1) for 1MB of data and this saving should be passed on to the consumer.

Not bad for a day's work!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Back to Brussels

Following what goes down as the most difficult election campaigns I have ever been a part of I am delighted to have been re-elected to the European Parliament and that Labour in the East Midlands actually improved our position to come second behind the Conservatives.

However the results nationally were sad for many reasons, not least the loss of hard-working colleagues who will be greatly missed and whose places will sickeningly be filled by the racist BNP.

I have been back in Brussels this week, having been re-elected as Leader of Labour's MEPs, to begin negotiations on positions and places both in the Socialist Group (President, Vice-President etc), the Parliament as a whole (President of the Parliament, Committee Chairs etc) and candidates for Commission President.

We may have been reduced to 13 MEPs from the 19 we held but we will do our utmost to ensure that our influence remains strong. It will mean pushing ourselves even further, and working ever so much harder, but I have every confidence that our delegation with its many talents and strengths will be up to the task of representing those who kept faith and elected us for our shared values of fairness, decency and solidarity.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

On the campaign trail

The European elections are just 2 weeks away and I’ve been out on the campaign trail this week!

Despite current events in Westminster I am finding the reception good on the doorstep. People are angry, and rightly so, but many do understand that this election is about who will represent the people of the East Midlands in the European Parliament and I believe Labour MEPs have an excellent record, one that we can be proud of.

In the last 5 years we have achieved the following:

  1. Taken real action to tackle climate change, putting in place legislation to reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020 (from 1990 levels)
  2. Introduced the European arrest warrant to stop criminals escaping across borders. This was actually used to help bring back a suspect in the London bombings from Italy to the UK.
  3. Slashed mobile phone roaming charges on calls and texts across Europe
  4. Put in place equal rights at work for temporary agency workers
  5. Championed new protections at work from cancer-causing chemicals, and violence and abuse.

And if re-elected we will continue working hard to ensure:

  • We overcome the financial crisis, including better regulation of financial markets and investment vehicles
  • New rules to ensure stability and fairness in our banks
  • Stronger rights for consumers, so no matter where in Europe you are buying from, you can be confident the products you buy are of good quality, safe and fully guaranteed.
  • A proper balance between Europe’s economic and social goals.
  • Further health and safety protections against new and emerging risks in the workplace.

This election is about who will be elected to tackle the most important issues of the day: the financial crisis, creating jobs, climate change and security. We can only successfully tackle them through effective cooperation both with our European partners and globally and by instilling our own values of fairness, solidarity and equality into the decision-making process.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A vote for the Tories is a vote for isolation

Today's article on the front page of the Guardian shows just how isolated a British government led by David Cameron would be. It features warnings from European heads of government over Tory policy on Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to threaten to withhold cooperation with the Conservatives saying that she would refuse to extend her hand to a David Cameron government given the Tories' current isolationist stance.

The Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt weighed in too with a direct warning to Cameron, telling him that that to have influence you cannot be on your own and that you need strong support from others to get your way.

The crux of the matter is this: in an increasingly intertwined global world our sovereignty is neither reduced nor eroded by European cooperation, but rather it is both increased and enhanced. The power to shape our own destiny can only be achieved through Britain playing a positive and proactive role at the centre of a strong Europe. As Gordon Brown pointed out in his much acclaimed speech to the European Parliament in March, it is in our own national interest to be in Europe's mainstream, not its slipstream.

It is abundantly clear that a vote for the Tories is a vote for isolation and a reduction in British influence just at the very time when we need it most in these troubled economic times

Friday, May 8, 2009

A ban on the trade in seal products

That's it - we got there. We voted on Tuesday to amend legislative proposals from the European Commission to ensure a ban on the trade in seal products within the European Union. Despite an attempt by the Liberal Democrat rapporteur to drastically weaken the proposals and require a mere labelling scheme, I'm delighted that Labour MEPs held firm to ensure a complete ban on trade in seal products, with only very limited exceptions for subsistence purposes for Inuit populations.

This law will ensure there is no European market for these products and will put an end to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of seals every year.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

European Economic Recovery Plan

With just 4 weeks to go now until polling day for the European elections, yesterday the European Parliament gave its final seal of approval to the European Commission's proposed €5 billion economic recovery plan.

The measures approved include a focus on investment in green and renewable energies such as wind power and carbon capture and storage pilot projects to capture CO2 from power stations and store it underground in geological formations.

Specific projects to the value of €500 million have been identified in the UK alone, including electricity interconnectors in the North Sea between Ireland and Wales, integration to the North Sea grid of offshore wind farms, new wind turbines in Scotland and carbon capture and storage projects for coal-fired power plants in England and Scotland.

I voted in support of the plan although I made it clear I would have liked to see much more ambitious proposals with an emphasis on tackling youth unemployment as we need to give the younger generation hope for the future, complementing Chancellor Alistair Darling's announcement in his budget speech that all young people out of work for over a year would be guaranteed either a job or a place in training.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine flu virus

The spread of the swine flu virus is undoubtedly cause for concern given the rapidly rising number of confirmed cases worldwide. In the EU we now have confirmed cases in the UK, Spain and Germany.

It is to Alan Johnson and Gordon Brown's credit that the UK is one of the most prepared countries in the world with a stockpile of anti-viral drugs and agreements in place with manufacturers of potential vaccines for their supply.

Of course health is primarily a national competence. But the European Union can and does provide added value to the policies of national governments. In a continent such as ours, in which we are so interdependent and where we enjoy free movement of people, it makes sense to coordinate surveillance efforts, exchange expertise and best practice and ensure measures implemented to tackle outbreaks are consistent, complementary and effective.

In 2005 the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) was established with a remit to strengthen our defences against infectious diseases. It works with national authorities to strengthen and develop continent-wide surveillance and supports the EU's Early Warning Response System, which keeps all competent health authorities in permanent contact with one another.

This early warning system is playing a large part in the EU's response to swine flu and tomorrow in Luxembourg there is a meeting between EU Health Ministers.

The EU has learned from the experience gained from the SARS outbreak and avian influenza and thanks to the ECDC and the Early Warning Response System it now has much more robust surveillance and alert mechanisms in place than in the past.

Friday, April 24, 2009

An end to phone and energy rip-offs!

It's been a really busy week here in Strasbourg with much important legislation being voted on which will have positive impacts on people's everyday lives.

On Wednesday I voted in favour of new caps on the cost of using a mobile phone when abroad and I supported new laws designed to open up Europe's energy markets and end rip-off energy charges, banning unfair pre-payment meter charges.

On mobile roaming a majority of MEPs had previously voted in 2007 to cut the cost of voice calls from an average of £1 per minute down to 40p and warned the mobile phone companies that for text messages and data use (using the internet and sending e-mails) they would have to end their unfair high charges voluntarily or we would do it for them. Well they didn't do it, so on Wednesday we voted to cap the price of texts sent from one EU country to another at 9 pence and cut data roaming wholesale prices down to 85 pence a megabyte by July this year and down to 39 pence from July 2011. It is high time that we ended the great mobile phone rip-off and I'm proud to have played my part, on behalf of the many holidaymakers and business people from the East Midlands.

We also voted through various pieces of legislation today on opening up Europe's electricity and gas markets. For the first time in European legislation, and largely due to the sterling work of my Labour friend and colleague Eluned Morgan, the concept of "energy poverty" is recognised. As with mobile roaming, customers have been ripped off for too long by energy companies. The laws we have approved will help ensure that energy companies can no longer abuse their dominant position. The ban on discriminatory pricing means that customers who pay up front for their electricity through a pre-payment meter will no longer be penalised for it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Increased help in these difficult times and the minimum wage

It may have escaped most people's attention but this month sees a whole range of measures coming into effect which I think are worth highlighting including:

- A rise in the basic state pension, maternity pay, paternity pay and statutory sick pay

- 4 days extra paid holiday for full time workers (up to 28 from 24)

- Free prescriptions for people being treated with cancer

- Free vascular screening for those aged 40-74

- The right to request flexible working extended to parents of children up to the age of 16

I am proud that our Labour government continues to push forward a progressive and caring agenda in a way that would be unimaginable under a Tory government.

April also marks the tenth anniversary of the National Minimum Wage being paid. Millions of workers have benefited from this, two thirds of them women. It is so easy to be complacent about this but I remember the fierce opposition from the Tories and business leaders who argued that it would be catastrophic for jobs. I don't know if the Tories would scrap the minimum wage if they ever got elected but you can bet your bottom dollar that they would fill it with holes in the form of opt-outs and exemptions allowing it to stagnate and become worthless.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Stop press!

Stop press! We voted on the horizontal anti-discrimination directive yesterday and it got through with a narrow majority.

It's great that the new legislation will combat discrimination on grounds of disability, religion or belief, age, or sexual orientation. It will apply to social protection and health care, social benefits, education and access to goods and services including housing.

However the majority of Conservative MEPs abstained in yesterday''s vote, while others such as East Midlands MEP Roger Helmer voted against, maintaining their record in refusing to give support to anti-discrimination legislation.

Cameron talks the 'inclusive' talk but his MEPs reveal that the nasty party is alive and voting in Europe!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Putting a stop to discrimination

This week in Brussels we are debating and voting on the European Parliament's position on a new anti-discrimination directive. Labour MEPs have been campaigning for such a directive for many years now and it is in no small measure due to the efforts of some of my colleagues, including Michael Cashman and Claude Moraes, that the Directive will now become a reality.

At present, European anti-discrimination legislation prohibits discrimination and harassment on all grounds (race, ethnic origin, gender, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation and disability) in the labour market. But as regards the provision of goods and services, discrimination is only outlawed on the grounds of race and gender. This is unacceptable and the European Parliament's vote is an important step towards ensuring that people cannot be denied access to goods and services because of their sexual orientation, age, religion, belief or disability. I can see no good reason why this should not be the case. It will go some way to help create a fairer society.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gordon Brown leading the way

Yesterday Gordon Brown was in Strasbourg to make a timely speech to the European Parliament ahead of the important G20 summit next week. He spoke of the crucial importance of the European Union, now more than ever, as a springboard to global cooperation, to deliver the coordinated action we urgently need to stem the global economic crisis, and to build for the future through reform of the international financial system.

He emphasised that only by working together, starting with the European Union, can we build a global consensus to take action against offshore tax havens and leave no hiding place for tax avoiders who refuse to pay their fair share. He said that only joint action could ensure that the market serves us and not the other way round. And he won widespread applause for his convictions that markets should be free, but never values free and that being fair is more important than being laissez faire.

He received a standing ovation at the end of his speech and I couldn't help thinking just how much having the Prime Minister at the heart of the European Parliament contrasted with David Cameron. Only two weeks ago he confirmed that he would withdraw his MEPs from the mainstream right-wing political group in the European Parliament and leave them isolated and impotent, set adrift from the parties of the most important European leaders such as Sarkozy, Merkel and Berlusconi. Indeed one of his own MEPs, Christopher Beazley, inspired by the Prime Minister's visit, broke ranks, saying that if Cameron became Prime Minister, Britain would be heading for the rocks with no allies in the major governments of the European Union. I don't think I have ever agreed more with a Tory in my life!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Safe cosmetic products and food

This week the European Parliament is meeting in Strasbourg for a plenary session. The legislation to be voted on includes legislation on cosmetic products which will ensure they are safe and that misleading claims such as 'reduces wrinkles' are only allowed if they can be scientifically proven.

We will also be agreeing legislation on the framework for approving 'novel foods'. These are foods which are produced using new techniques and technologies and whose safety needs to be assessed before they can be sold in our supermarkets. Examples include new breeding techniques or cholesterol-lowering foods. We will be agreeing the criteria for rigorous safety assessments before these foods can be approved.

Both these proposals are prime examples of why, because the single market means that our businesses can sell to over 500 million consumers from Buxton to Budapest, we must also have common rules to ensure those products, be they cosmetics or foods, are safe. Some of it is by nature very technical (and with good reason!) and it is difficult to communicate this in a 'sexy' way. But nonetheless it is hugely important to have these regulations in place to ensure the day to day products we put on our skin and in our mouths do not damage our health.

Would EU believe it?

Following on from my post a few weeks ago on Euro-myths another prime example emerged last week. It concerns an internal European Parliament guide which, as my colleague Richard Corbett rightly points out, was written for the Parliament's translators and interpreters to make sure they can correctly translate certain terms and expressions in other languages in a polite way. It is not directed at MEPs and certainly not at the wider public.

However, as is usual, it was picked up by the Eurosceptic press (spurred on by Conservative MEPs, including the East Midlands' own Chris Heaton Harris!) and the sensationalist headlines were predictably (and pathetically) all about the European Parliament banning the use of Miss and Mrs across the EU! Richard's blog post is well worth a read!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cervical cancer – campaigning to save lives

It was fantastic to hear that at virtually the same time as I was meeting Rachel Bennet last Friday, the Government was announcing a review which could end up saving lives - and which the determined campaigning of this young woman had helped bring about.

expert panel will report later this year to see if cervical screening should be offered to women in England aged 20-24. At present only women over 25 are offered smear tests, even though in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the tests are offered from age 20.

Rachel is a 22 year old photographer who lives in Derby. Just a year ago, as a student, she experienced symptoms which led her to believe she had cervical cancer. Despite opposition from her original GP, who told her she was too young to contract the disease, she was proved right, in time for effective treatment.

But she knows she was lucky. There are women under 25 with this disease who will have no symptoms and will not be offered a smear test to pick up abnormal cells.

Working with
Jo’s Trust, a group campaigning for action and greater awareness of cervical cancer, Rachel will present a petition this week to the Prime Minister. Containing an impressive 15,000 signatures, it will show just how many people want to see the age limit for routine smear tests lowered from 25 to 20.

As joint chair of Politicians for Cervical Cancer Prevention, I’ve campaigned for the introduction of national cervical cancer vaccination programme for young girls, which launched last September.

Cervical screening already saves around 4,500 lives every year. Early detection is crucial to help prevent cervical cancers developing. Offering screening to women from age 20 could save even more lives.

We’re all encouraged that the Government will carry out a review, but Rachel and others will keep up the pressure. As she says. ”I had symptoms and my cancer has been treated. I was fortunate. Other women under 25 may not be so lucky.”

She now plans to take the message to universities and colleges, and at our meeting, we discussed various plans to help raise awareness there, whatever the result of the Government review.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cameron's Tories in Splendid Isolation

Yesterday William Hague met with the chairman of the European People's Party (EPP) to confirm that Tory MEPs will leave the biggest political group in the European Parliament after the June 4 European elections and will try to set up their own.

Once again the Tories have put dogma before national interest. Just when the global economic crisis has shown the need for effective cooperation with our partners, David Cameron is showing himself to be an isolationist. This decision shows a complete lack of leadership. He is clearly pandering to the Eurosceptic lunatic fringe of his own Party.

The outcome of this is that Tory MEPs and the wider Conservative Party will have no influence and no say in the European Parliament. This cannot be good for the people of Britain, who they claim to represent in Europe.

Tories in the next European Parliament will sit in splendid isolation with a rag bag of nobodies who no one wants to listen to. David Cameron will have to explain how this will be of help to the people of Britain in a time of crisis.

Monday, March 9, 2009

International Women's Day and the June elections

From my perspective as Labour’s third woman Leader in the European Parliament, following in the footsteps of the legendary Barbara Castle, International Women’s Day should be about looking back on what Britain’s membership of the European Union has achieved for women, and looking forward to the real choices facing women voters in June’s European elections.

Equal pay for women workers was enshrined in the founding Treaty of the European Community, way back in 1957. The British Conservative government at the time wasn’t willing to sign up to the Treaty and certainly wasn’t willing to introduce a statutory requirement for equal pay. It took over 13 years and a Labour government for that to happen in Britain. Since then the European Union, propelled by successive Labour governments and MEPs, has been at the cutting edge of progressive policies which have greatly benefitted women workers in all walks of life. Our proud record includes achievements such as equal rights for part time workers (over half of women workers are part time), an entitlement to maternity rights from day one (instead of the two years it used to be) and the right to return to work with no loss of pay or status after pregnancy. More recently the highly successful EU ‘Daphne’ programmes have funded action to combat all types of violence against women in Europe including violence in the family, violence in schools and other establishments, violence at work, commercial sexual exploitation, genital mutilation, trafficking and so on. The current programme, championed by Labour MEPs, runs until 2013 and has a budget of €116 million.

But that is the past. What about now? We are less than 3 months away from what will be important European elections on June 4. The choice for women’s rights and women-friendly policies is a clear one. Many people say it doesn’t matter who you vote for in the European Parliament. I say this is wrong. The dividing lines are clear and the choice is one between progressive women-friendly policies and the old male-dominated misogynistic Tories. David Cameron’s Conservatives may be working overtime to present a caring and compassionate fa├žade nationally, but scratch beneath the surface and what you find are the same old male-orientated attitudes. This applies nowhere more so than in the European Parliament. Out of the 27 Tory MEPs just one is a woman , and even she is stepping down at the June election, fed up with her 26 male colleagues. She protests that for too long the Tory European right has been allowed to fester in the European Parliament . This did not surprise me one iota. Looking at the Tory voting record in the European Parliament, they have consistently followed their Neanderthal instincts. They refused to give their support to a report on combating violence against women. The report called for a zero-tolerance policy as regards all forms of violence against women, including within marriage. They failed to vote to make rape within marriage a criminal offence or to end so-called 'crimes of honour' or female genital mutilation. Tory MEPs also voted against a key report that would combat any form of discrimination in the provision of goods and services, including on the grounds of gender. They are not just an embarrassment to Caroline Jackson, they are embarrassment to David Cameron and an embarrassment to Britain.

I am proud of the fact that I lead a Labour Party in the European Parliament made up of over 40% women, all of whom work tirelessly and are a credit to Labour values and our country as a whole. We will continue to push for women-friendly policies in Europe, from the protection of women in the workplace, the continued fight for equality in all walks of life, to the defence in the developing world of what we in Europe now take for granted as the most fundamental of rights. This is what separates us from the rest. It is why, just like we need progressive Labour representation in our local councils and in national government, we need to ensure we return Labour MEPs to fight for what we believe in and uphold our values in Europe. Whatever your views on the European Union, it is an important forum where key decisions affecting our everyday life are made and we cannot afford to have those decisions dominated by the unreformed Tory right or the extremist rabble of UKIP, the BNP and their ilk.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Seal of approval?

On Monday the European Parliament took another step towards putting an end to the cruel and vile seal hunt when the Internal Market Committee voted to amend a legislative proposal for a ban on seal products imported and sold on the EU market. I have been working closely on this issue, together with my colleagues Arlene McCarthy and David Martin to ensure that the legislation really does its job of protecting seals from being clubbed to death, and ensuring that it is not full of derogations which can be used as loopholes.

I had been contacted by many constituents in the East Midlands asking me to amend the proposal to ensure a tough ban on the cruel trade in seal products and I believe the committee's vote has done this. I have also been working closely on this with a constituent and friend of mine, Mark Glover, who has been working tirelessly on this campaign for the Nottingham based NGO 'Respect for animals'.

I suspect that my fellow East Midlands MEP, Tory Roger Helmer will not be overly impressed. I still remember his reply when a Lincolnshire schoolgirl wrote to him asking him to stop the killing of innocent baby seals. As detailed in Phil Dilk's blog, he told her that she was wrong to care about dumb animals. I might be sticking my neck out but I would hazard a guess that this particular legislation will not be getting his seal of approval!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The 'Euro-myth'.

For the uninitiated, a 'euro-myth' is a story, usually in the Eurosceptic press, which is either wholly untrue, a deliberate distortion of the facts, a misunderstanding or taking an individual idea from a working paper and presenting it as a fixed decision.

In my work as an MEP I frequently come across examples of such stories when alarmed constituents get in touch, when I am asked about them myself by the press or when I come across them in the daily press summaries my office puts together for me.

Some of them beggar belief. For example, did you hear the one about 'barmy Brussels bureaucrats' working on secret plans to ban supermarkets and off licences from selling alcohol from Monday-Friday (Daily Star, 21 February 2005)?

Or how about the EU's ban on busty barmaids? The Sun (4 August 2005) was livid that Brussels bureaucrats had ordered Britain's barmaids to get rid of low cut tops in a bid to cut skin cancer rates. Sticking to the barmaid theme the Daily Star (1 April 2008) warned that under anti-discrimination legislation chatting up barmaids would result in fines, and the Sun (1 April 2008) and the Daily Mail (31 May 2008) were equally outraged that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels had imposed this on an unsuspecting Britain.

It really must have been a quiet month for the papers in April last year as the tabloids got really desperate for news and ran the story about the evil EU's secret plot to abolish Britain itself in response to some maps drawn up for regional cooperation programmes! (Daily Mail, The Sun, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph 23 April 2008).

Of course all of these stories are Euro-myths and are deliberate distortions. I personally cannot believe that the authors of these articles seriously believe their stories are true but then why let the facts get in the way of a good Euro-myth?

Whilst most are highly amusing, there is a more serious side. The blatant bias and euro-scepticism of some of the newspapers involved goes a long way to explaining why so many Brits are so hostile to the European Union.

If I believed everything I read in the British media I think I would be a UKIP voter too! I would think that 'Brussels' has the power to do whatever it likes and that decisions are taken by faceless, loopy, unelected bureaucrats in isolation, and somehow imposed on the UK, against our wishes, from one day to the next.

But of course they are not. The EU can only act in very specific areas where the treaties say they can. Vital issues for national sovereignty such as defence, healthcare, taxation, social security, and education remain primarily national competences and rightly so. This does not mean that we cannot cooperate in certain areas where it is clearly in our national interest to do so.

And where the European Union does have the competence to act, it's true that the procedure is complicated, but dealing with big global issues is complex – there are few easy answers and I believe British voters understand this . However what follows is a short guide for those who are interested.

The European Commission (the civil service of the EU) drafts proposals at the request of the national governments and MEPs, as well as overseeing fair and equal implementation of agreed legislation. The actual decisions and votes on legislation are taken by the democratically elected national governments in the Council of Ministers and by democratically elected MEPs in the European Parliament. The UK, as one of the largest countries in the European Union is a major player in this decision-making process with both the UK government and Labour MEPs punching way above our collective weight.

It is this basic understanding of how decisions are made that I wish more journalists would understand before putting pen to paper. Of course not everything that we decide upon is perfect and we must all have a sense of humour. I am prepared to engage in real debate about real issues surrounding the decisions we take in the European Union. However the tabloid focus on barmy Brussels bureaucrats and all the weird and wonderful Euro-myths does a grave injustice to our country's important membership of the European Union and is an affront to serious debate.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Czech what you say Mr Klaus

Yesterday in a formal sitting of the full European Parliament we were treated, or rather subjected, to a speech by the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, whose country currently holds the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union.

Mr Klaus launched into a diatribe winning much applause from the ragbag of neo-fascists, far-right and what's left of UKIP (those who haven't been locked up or made fools of themselves in the Australian outback), and provoking disbelief and embarrassment from the rest of us.

He spoke of how the very existence of the European Parliament actually increases the so-called 'democratic deficit' of the EU, distastefully made comparisons with communist parliaments of Cold War Eastern Europe, and questioned how many of the decisions currently taken at EU level should actually be taken at national or local level.

On his first point I wonder if he thinks that having a directly elected Parliament, representing the interests of voters and citizens at the heart of the decision-making process really makes the EU less democratic than other international organisations such as the UN where decisions are taken only by national governments with no formal parliamentary role. In the European Parliament we carefully scrutinise every legislative proposal, meet and correspond with our constituents and key stakeholders and subsequently shape the legislation as their democratically elected representatives. Those who stand on the sidelines and shout abuse, refusing to engage achieve nothing and betray those who they purport to represent.

On the point he made questioning whether the legislation we vote on really needs to be taken at the EU level I can only presume he has never heard of what in euro-speak is called 'subsidiarity'. Subsidiarity is a fundamental principle of European law and enshrined in the Treaty establishing the European Community. It means that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen. In the European Union, it means that each and every legislative proposal must be formally assessed to determine whether its objectives can be best achieved at the national, regional or local level. And even when the Commission argue that legislation at EU level is best MEPs and national governments in the Council do not always agree. It was Labour MEPs who led the battle against a proposed directive on soil, which would have imposed stringent regulation and requirements on soil users, duplicating much of the good work already being done in Member States. As soil does not generally cross borders, we could not see the added value of EU action so we voted to reject the whole proposal.

Of course I am not saying that the current state of affairs is perfect and that we cannot improve the way we work and what we do - indeed Labour MEPs are campaigning for reform on a wide-range of issues, a prime example being the one seat campaign for the European Parliament (getting rid of Strasbourg).
You can watch sessions of the European Parliament here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Food labelling

Today in Brussels I am taking part in a debate in my full committee (Environment, Public Health and Food Safety) on a proposed new law on food labelling. We are essentially looking at how much information should be provided on the labels of the food we buy and how it should be presented. As with all proposed EU legislation, the European Commission has proposed the first draft and now it is up to MEPs and national governments to jointly decide on the final content of it (it's what in euro-speak is called co-decision).

Today we will be debating the 700 or so amendments submitted to the proposal by members of the committee! I have submitted my own amendments which aim to do the following:

  1. Ensure that when we buy our food in the supermarket we can see where it comes from, be it bacon, fruit or ready meals. This is known as country of origin labelling. At present there is no obligation on food manufacturers to provide this information and this must change. I think people want to know where their food comes from and I hope my fellow MEPs on the committee will back me on this. It is also important that the place of production is accurate - for example at present a ready lasagna could be labelled as British because it was last processed in Britain, even though the meat in it could in fact have come from Romania and the tomatoes from Greece. I support labelling of the place of agricultural production (birth, rearing and slaughter) of the main ingredients rather than just the country where the ingredients were all put together in a factory.

  2. Introduce a requirement to label the amount of energy and carbohydrates on alcoholic drinks. There is no reason why this information should not be given on a can of lager or a bottle of alcopops so those who want to can see how many calories and carbohydrates they are consuming.

  3. Introduce a mandatory requirement for the UK's own successful traffic light system to be used. Research shows that consumers prefer the use of red, amber and green to indicate whether a food is high, medium or low in a particular nutrient. It provides for easy to understand, at a glance comparison. My amendments would make these mandatory for all processed convenience foods such as pizzas, burgers, sausages, ready meals. Again I will be seeking to persuade other MEPs to support my proposed changes to the draft legislation.

After the debate today, there will be a vote by all MEPs on the committee in March and then the legislation as amended is scheduled to be voted on by the full Parliament (in what we call a plenary session) in May. If after the May vote there is agreement with the national governments, then the legislation will become law. If the European Parliament and the national governments cannot agree then there will be a second reading in the Parliament's next term, following the June elections.


Welcome to the first entry in my brand new blog. In creating this blog it is not my intention to give a comprehensive account of all my work as an MEP for the East Midlands and Leader of the Labour Group of MEPs in the European Parliament. However I do intend it to give constituents and any other interested parties a better understanding of the European Parliament and my work as well as looking at some of the key issues which we deal with. I hope you will find it interesting and useful.

If you want to find out more about who I am please see my biography. For more information about my work please visit my website