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.