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!