Thursday, December 9, 2010

Belgian Presidency High Level Conference on Health, Nutrition & Obesity

I spoke this morning to a packed hall at a Belgian Presidency High Level conference on health, nutrition and obesity, alongside Health Commissioner John Dalli.

I informed the conference of the workshop on obesity, which I co-chaired in the European Parliament in November as summarised here.
I also made a plea for action, not rhetoric and spoke about some of the relevant legislation in the European Parliament, including food labelling, pesticides regulation, maximum permitted levels of added sugar in fruit juices, regulation of advertising of junk food to children, and the EU's free fruit and veg in schools scheme, and of course spoke in favour of the traffic light labelling scheme, as we have pioneered in the UK.

I was strongly critical of the role of industry and the amount of resources poured into lobbying to avoid stronger regulation. We heard from Commissioner Dalli that the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, chaired by the Commission (bringing together industry and other civil society stakeholders), had reached a voluntary agreement to reduce salt intake across the EU's 27 Member States by 16% over 4 years.

While this is of course to be enthusiastically welcomed, it is many of these same companies who separately lobby against front of pack labelling, or traffic light labelling, too concerned for their profits.

Finally as discussed here
I told the conference that it was perverse that it is cheaper to purchase junk food than it is healthier foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables and that whilst this remained the case, we would all be swimming against the tide in our efforts.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

More political posturing from Cameron on the EU

The EU Bill proposed by the Coalition is another example of Cameron trying to appease the hardline Tory europhobes by appearing tough on 'Brussels', whilst in reality not doing very much at all.

This week MPs debated a new law giving the British Parliament sovereignty over the EU and guaranteeing a referendum before transferring new powers from Westminster to Brussels. However, in reality there is nothing new about this law. The British Parliament has always been sovereign over European law. It was an act of Parliament to join the EU and the Parliament has the power to withdraw from the EU. Furthermore the British government directly participates in the law-making process in Brussels, and all national governments vote on proposed legislation. Citizens too can participate through the Citizens' Initiative and by lobbying their directly-elected MEPs.

As for referenda on the EU, the truth is that the bill is so vague that it is unclear when a referendum would take place. Under the new law we could have seen a referendum on small details, such as Britain's involvement in the EU pet passport scheme, but we will not be seeing the kind of referenda that Eurosceptics really want, such as on Britain's membership of the EU or on the Lisbon Treaty, despite Cameron's 'cast iron' guarantee.

We have already seen this kind of posturing over the last few months with the EU budget. In the summer the majority of EU governments agreed on a 2.9% rise in the budget, whilst Cameron tried and failed to argue for a freeze. In October, realising he'd lost the fight, Cameron managed to get just 12 Member States to sign a letter saying they wanted a 2.9% rise. He claimed this as a British, Thatcher-style victory over the EU when actually this had already been agreed by 20 governments a few months earlier.

Yet again Cameron is making empty gestures to the more eurosceptic members of his party, whilst achieving very little other than losing credibility with our European allies.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

European action on Alzheimer's disease

This morning saw an important step for the 9.9 million Europeans who suffer from Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, and the people that care for them, as MEPs voted on a new report focusing on these diseases.

Alzheimer's is the main cause of disability amongst the elderly. In today's ageing population this problem is only getting worse, with the worldwide rate of dementia set to double every twenty years. Alzheimer's can be an extremely distressing disease, especially for those closest to the patient who can feel they are slowly losing the person they love. It also tends to be the child or partner of the sufferer who takes on most of the caring responsibility, often giving up their job in order to care for their loved one full time.

Research into dementias is particularly fragmented across Europe, which is why the EU has launched the Joint Programming Initiative for countries to coordinate and share their research more easily. Hopefully the initiative will help researchers build on the promising breakthroughs in discovering the cause of Alzheimer's.

In the European Parliament we are calling for Alzheimer's and other dementias to be declared a European health priority and in this we have even garnered the support of José Mourinho. We have also called on the Commission to add the 'dementia dimension' into plans for future jobs and growth, creating vital jobs in the care sector. Personally I included amendments urging not only for research into new drugs and therapies, but also for funding research into diet and nutrition, which is increasingly being shown to be an important factor in the development of Alzheimer's disease. Tackling this huge problem will not be easy, but I am delighted that we are making some real progress at a European level.

Monday, November 29, 2010

EU migration doesn't have to mean a raw deal for British workers

Gloria De Piero was right on last week's Question Time; there are ways of protecting British workers from being undercut by cheaper labour from within the EU. Nigel Farage predictably brayed that we have no power over migrants from places like Poland and Latvia coming to the UK and doing a job for less than a British person, but we do.

One of the best parts of being a member of the EU is freedom of movement, a right that many Brits take advantage of, whether it's studying in Berlin, working in Paris or retiring to the Spanish coast. However with this advantage comes problems, and it is clearly unacceptable that workers hired in other EU countries and then sent to the UK can put collective agreements and established terms and conditions at risk.

There is already European legislation which is meant to stop this from happening. The Posted Workers Directive says that companies are allowed to employ their own staff on projects in other EU countries, as long as this is for a limited time and the company abides by local working conditions. However, after a series of controversial decisions by the European Court of Justice the legislation has resulted in companies treating migrant workers as they would be in their home country, and local workers feeling they have been undercut.

We need to revise this legislation to make sure British workers are not excluded and EU workers are not exploited. To do this we need the support of the governments of the Member States, and the support of the Commission, which after consistent pressure from Labour MEPs and our allies looks more and more likely. It is also something Ed Miliband prioritised in his first speech as leader. We need constructive co-operation with Europe to solve problems like this, and UKIP's brand of ignorant Europhobia only hinders British interests in Europe.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Stopping prescription drug adverts

This week changes to the legislation on prescription medicines that could have seen US-style drug adverts coming in by the back door were blocked by MEPs in Strasbourg. The aim of the changes was to improve the quality and access to information about prescription drugs across Europe, while retaining the ban on direct to consumer advertising, but the result could have been the complete opposite.

If the European Parliament had agreed with the European Commission's
original proposals then we could have been seeing "information" about specific drugs in health related publications, which effectively could have meant adverts in magazines like Men's Health and certain sections of newspapers. We could have also seen doctors handing their patients entirely unverified and biased "information" sent to them from pharmaceutical companies. This proposal was backed by the centre-right at committee stage in the Parliament. I was an outspoken critic of this, as were my colleagues in the Socialists and Democrats group. The last thing we want is for our doctors and nurses to be acting as advertising agents for drug companies. Thankfully, minutes before appearing on a BBC debate with me, the centre-right Swedish MEP leading on the legislation changed his mind and left the Tories in the small minority of those supporting the dangerous proposal.

I was extremely disappointed to see this proposed legislation come from the European Commission. It followed over a decade of relentless lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry, keen to introduce something similar in Europe to the television adverts for prescription drugs seen in the USA. The industry pressure also reached some members of the Parliament, but fortunately most MEPs worked closely with consumer and patient groups to change the report from being industry focused to being patient focused. Now this legislation should help provide patients with accurate, reliable and impartial information about the drugs they take, rather than promotional material from pharmaceutical companies looking to increase their sales.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Euro-nightmare before Christmas for Cameron

Very interesting news from Strasbourg this week where David Cameron's Euro-nightmare before Christmas just got worse!

Not only is his new political grouping in the EP skating on very thin ice, but on Monday Conservative MEPs presented Cameron with yet another European headache by electing the more Eurosceptic of the three candidates to lead their delegation in the European Parliament. Although I must stress that newly-elected Martin Callanan is not in the same league as his Tory colleagues Roger Helmer and Daniel Hannan, both of whom should really belong to UKIP. In fact, Martin works hard on many issues in the European Parliament's Environment committee and is currently the Rapporteur on a new proposal to limit the amount of CO2 emitted by vans across the whole EU, and has achieved much consensus on his approach. Nevertheless, I suspect he is not a fan of Cameron's about turn on Europe since his election and his failure to implement his opposition rhetoric.

But Cameron's main worry will be for his new ECR (European Conservatives and Reformist) Group in the European Parliament. This is the group that Nick Clegg criticised during one of the leadership debates in May telling the nation how Cameron's MEPs were allied with "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes".

Up until now, many such comments had been directed at the ECR leader, Polish MEP Michal Kaminski. Well it now seems that even he finds his own Party (the Polish Law and Justice party) so disgusting that he has resigned stating it has become too right-wing and been taken over by extremists. The Law and Justice Party are the Tories' largest ally in the ECR Group so it will be interesting to follow developments and see whether Kaminski can retain his leadership of the ECR Group.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Panorama on junk food

Last night's Panaroma programme examining the case for increased taxation on junk food was extremely interesting. Some of the arguments made are certainly worthy of consideration.

I particularly liked the comparison made with tobacco. It was pointed out that taxation on tobacco has indisputably had a major impact on the reduction in the number of smokers. The question was then asked that given the current obesity epidemic we are experiencing and the high numbers of deaths related to obesity, whether it was time to consider adopting a similar approach for junk food.

Of course we must be very careful not to make life more difficult for those on low incomes and push up their weekly food bill, which is why any decision to increase taxes on junk food should not be taken lightly. One suggestion is to use increased taxes on junk food to subsidise the consumption of healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables, which could actually reduce the food bill of those on lower incomes choosing to improve their diet and opt for healthier options.

Tory Health Secretary Andrew Lansley opposes such moves, and given his outrageous decision to bring companies such as McDonalds, PepsiCo, Unilever and others to the heart of government decision-making, this is hardly surprising.

Cameron's relatively pro-European stance to be cautiously welcomed, but his influence remains limited in nature

One of the striking aspects of David Cameron's tenure as Prime Minister so far is his about turn on the European Union.

Right from the beginning when bidding to become his party's leader in 2005 he was forced to make Eurosceptic noises and a rash promise to withdraw his MEPs from the mainstream centre-right group of European political parties. Without the votes of the Eurosceptic fringe of his party he never would have been elected as Tory leader in the first place.

However, I have been surprised to see that his tough rhetoric in opposition has melted away.

Firstly, his pledges to renegotiate the EU's vital and important social legislation have been conveniently forgotten about.

Secondly, despite his strong rhetoric, presumably for the benefit of his own back-benchers and the Eurosceptic press, he has agreed to a minimum 2.9% increase in the EU budget for next year.

Thirdly, he has enthusiastically championed close defence and military cooperation with our closest EU partners, one of the most sensitive areas of sovereignty for many Tories.

Indeed, one of his first 'European' decisions as Prime Minister was to appoint the moderate David Lidington as his Europe Minister. In my meeting with Mr Lidington soon after his appointment it appeared to me that this was a choice highly influenced by the pro-European Nick Clegg.

Nevertheless, despite the relatively positive approach, it remains to be seen how significant this can be. The problem for David Cameron, and indeed any Conservative Prime Minister is that outside the main centre-right EPP group, his influence and that of his MEPs is somewhat neutered. As a co-legislator, the European Parliament can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant and is now a mature arm of the EU's legislative process. Legislation here is adopted on a consensus basis with deals often hammered out between the EPP and my own group, the centre-left Socialists and Democrats. His MEPs, on the outside of this process, are sadly excluded from such important negotiations. Likewise, despite his attempts in recent weeks to improve relationships with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the pre-summit meetings of EPP centre-right prime ministers excludes David Cameron so despite his shouting to the media, his real influence is also limited and this can be in nobody's interest, least of all Britain's.

So perhaps the real question which remains for David Cameron is this: Will he swallow his pride, confront the hard-right Europhobes in his party and apply for readmission to the mainstream EPP or will he choose to keep both himself and his party in the political wilderness?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Workshop on diet, nutrition and obesity

Yesterday I co-hosted a European Parliament workshop looking at diet, nutrition and obesity and how the work we do in the European Parliament can impact on this.

We heard from various experts, health and consumer groups about the consequences of poor nutrition, the socio-economic imbalances which result in poor nutrition and ways and mechanisms at our disposal to contribute towards better nutrition and health.

It was a really informative session and while of course there no silver bullet exists, we can ensure the decisions we take help contribute to improved diet and nutrition. Examples include providing clear and useful nutritional information on food and drink, ensuring that any health claims made can be backed up by scientific evidence, reforming the CAP to include promotion of fruit and vegetables and continuing and expanding the EU's fruit and veg scheme for schools.

During the meeting a very good point was made that when it comes to food safety, there is no argument that we should legislate to ensure safety, but when it comes to poor diet and nutrition, which can kill and make ill many more people than unsafe food, there appears to be a reluctance on behalf of many legislators to turn rhetoric into action.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An article on childhood obesity in Europe

Taken from an article I wrote for The Parliament Magazine
Classified as an epidemic in Europe by the WHO, with around 20% of European children overweight, of which one third are obese, it is time for policy-makers to turn rhetoric into action.

With high prevalence rates in children from poor socio-economic backgrounds, there is clearly a strong correlation between childhood obesity and disadvantaged families. Of course education is key; for health workers, parents and the children themselves. Whilst as MEPs we can encourage Member States to dedicate sufficient resources to education programmes, and to cooperate together to share best practice and exchange ideas, we have no formal powers in this area. Similarly, public health largely remains a national competence, although increasingly, legislation we deal with in the Parliament can and does play an important role.

For example, in order to empower parents to make the right choices for their children, simple and easy-to-understand nutritional information is important. It is difficult to make the right choices if no information is available, or is presented in an unclear or inaccessible format, obscuring comparisons. This is why the ongoing struggle over the new Food Information to Consumers regulation is so important to many of us in the European Parliament who understand this. I was delighted that in our first reading vote last June, my proposals to label key nutrients on the front of pack in an easily comparable format were backed by a majority of MEPs. I was less pleased that my proposal to use the traffic light system to denote low, medium or high levels of salt, sugar and fats was rejected, following a fierce and often misleading campaign from vested interests. This system, simple yet effective, would have enabled at-a-glance comparisons between different foods, helping parents to identify the healthier option for their children.

A similar lobby from vested interests was also at play during the revision of the Television without Frontiers Directive, some years ago, when a proposed amendment to restrict advertising of junk food before 9pm was ferociously opposed. I find it unacceptable that foods with a poor nutritional profile can continue to be advertised to children, be it directly or indirectly and I look forward to the imminent implementation of the Nutrition and Health Claims regulation, adopted by the European Parliament in 2006, which will ensure nutrition claims must be scientifically backed up, and will put in place nutrient profiles, ending the current practice whereby a food with a particularly poor profile in terms of high levels of fats, sugar and salt is allowed to bear a positive health claim which focuses on just one positive aspect, while ignoring the many negatives.

I was also extremely interested to read about developments in Finland, and their planned confectionary tax to help discourage consumption of unhealthy junk food. While I am not necessarily convinced that this is the best way forward, it does highlight an important issue; it is often the food with the poorest nutritional make-up which is cheapest, meaning that parents wishing to provide their children with a balanced, healthy diet find it more expensive to do so. This is perverse and if we are serious about tackling the child obesity epidemic, we must look at ways of reversing this.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet to help us tackle the scourge of child obesity and whilst the measures I have outlined here may be small steps, nevertheless they do represent progress and I shall continue to campaign on such issues in the future.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Have your say!

It has been brought to my attention that Social Europe Journal is running an online poll for the most influential left-of-centre European blog and this blog is among one of the 18 nominees - so if you like what you see on my blog please take the time to vote!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Update - Channel 4 FactCheck say Cameron was wrong and fictitious about Labour MEPs' vote

Time for the Tories to make it clear: do they want real reform or just headlines?

(As published on Left Foot Forward)

As the government struggles to hit home with its arguments for the biggest cuts in living memory, David Cameron is looking for a diversion to relieve the run of bad headlines.

Cue an EU budget battle.

Today the prime minister is in Brussels for an EU summit – and he’s briefing anyone who’ll listen about his determination to stand up to EU excess.

Conservative politicians and commentators have been desperate to make political capital out of their call for a budget freeze, even if the facts don’t entirely support the story they want to be written.

So this week David Cameron stood up at PMQs to accuse Labour MEPs of backing a European Parliament call for a 5.9 per cent budget increase.

Tory aides must have been so busy writing the press release that they forgot to actually check the detail of the vote.

In fact Labour MEPs
voted against the overall call for a budget increase and against a host of outrageous calls to increase spending. But it gets far more interesting than that.

For all their bluster Conservative MEPs failed to table a single amendment to the final budget package that would have resulted in a reduction in spending against 2010 levels. It was left to Labour members to propose cuts of more than €1bn to wasteful agricultural subsidies.

The best the Tories could manage was an amendment proposing a non-binding call for a budget freeze – a piece of political posturing that would, at best, have had no actual impact on the overall figures in the budget and, at worst, could have alienated the very people we need to win around to deliver a better value-for-money EU budget.

It is another example of the Tories’ impossible position on EU affairs. Cameron and Hague support the idea of Britain playing a leading role in the EU but allow themselves to be held hostage by backbenchers and an anti-EU press.

That’s how they ended up exiled from the mainstream in EU politics. The Tories’ decision to quit the same group as Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats means that Britain is still the only country to have no voice inside the biggest political group in the European Parliament.

It makes it much harder for those of us in favour of actually achieving proper reform (not just talking about it) to bring other European politicians with us.

It’s time for the Tories to make it clear whether their actions are actually about delivering reform, or just delivering headlines.

Member States back country of origin labelling for meat

Great news emerging this week from the Council of Ministers where it seems the EU's 27 national governments have reached agreement on mandatory labelling of the country of origin for meat, extending the current provisions for beef to lamb, pork and poultry.

I'm delighted that the Member States have seriously looked at the European Parliament's position, which endorsed the amendments I put forward for mandatory country of origin labelling. While my amendments went further, and included meat used in processed products and other single-ingredient products, as well as dairy products, I am happy that at least they have asked the Commission to come forward with a report on compulsory labelling for these aspects.

This legislation will come back to the European Parliament for second reading in 2011, where I hope MEPs will continue to support my proposals.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Miami Five

Last week in Strasbourg I met with Olga Salanueva and Adriana Perez. The women's husbands are two of five Cubans, known in the UK as the Miami Five, arrested and jailed for spying by the US in 1998.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions has declared the detention of these five Cubans to be both illegal and arbitrary and Amnesty International has expressed "grave concern" at both the impartiality of the judicial process in the original trial and the denial of US visas to these two wives so they can visit their husbands in jail.

While I am no legal expert as regards the trials and sentences of the Miami Five, I find it inhumane and unacceptable that the United States persistently refuse visas for these two women to see their husbands and will be working in the coming months to put pressure on the US authorities to change this sad state of affairs.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Health and safety at work is no joke

The successful rescue of 33 miners in Chile should not mask broader issues of health and safety, and I hope that trade unionists and others will use the publicity generated by those events to highlight European Health & Safety Week (25-29 Oct).
Like everyone else, I’ve been enthralled at the whole story coming out of Chile and naturally delighted that the trapped miners have been freed and that they are now re-united with their families.

The rescue operation seems to have been a marvelous example of good planning, sensible co-operation and efficient execution and I congratulate all those involved. The Chilean people will rightly be proud of the men who survived in such extraordinary circumstance, and of those technicians, health professionals and others who have brought about a real “good news” story.

But let’s not forget how close we came to a tragedy; to thirty three families losing a son, a father, a brother.

And let’s not forget that thousands die in mines every year, through inadequate care with a whole raft of health and safety issues.

Nor is this just an issue for the mining industry or for countries thousands of miles away. There were 151 workers fatally injured in Britain last year. The figure continues to fall, as the effects of better health & safety legislation – largely from Europe – has an impact. But this figure is still too high.

That’s why it’s important that we use European Health & Safety Week to focus again on how we can create a safer working environment.

There are many who sneer at the very phrase “health & safety”, and I have lost count of the number of times Conservative MEPs have voted against health & safety measures.

The Chilean rescue must act as a reminder to us all. There is a very thin line between triumph and tragedy, and sensible, effective legislation on people’s working conditions really does save lives without the need for massive rescue operations.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Skid Marks and Vince Cable

It may simply be a sign of the political times, but I for one cannot fathom how the Liberal Democrats have managed to make such an about turn on so many key issues, so central to their perceived self-identity. Vince Cable may well have remarked in the Commons on Tuesday that "The roads to Westminster are littered with the skid marks of political parties changing direction." But to my mind the only party changing direction has been the Lib Dems. Granted, the Tories are executing cuts of a magnitude far greater than their own rhetoric before May’s general election, but the key difference between them and the Lib Dems is that they are moving to a more comfortable ideological place, whereas the Lib Dems are betraying so many of their core values.

On tuition fees, one of the Lib Dems’ flagship policies for many years, not only will they not abolish tuition fees but it looks like they will be the ones doubling, tripling, even quadrupling this figure, and hiking up the interest rates on the loans taken out to pay for the fees, in what will be a double whammy for any potential students from middle or working class backgrounds.

The possibility of some universities such as Oxford or Cambridge being allowed to charge whatever they like will clearly lead to extremely able, but less well-of students, from poorer backgrounds being effectively denied access to this country’s most prestigious and well-respected universities, opting instead for a less-expensive university, thus creating an elitist, classist system of higher education, doing away with equal opportunity of chances between the haves and have nots. Will this be the primary legacy of the Liberal Democrats?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Meeting Ed

I'm travelling back to London this afternoon for a meeting with our new Leader Ed Miliband. Following his victory last week, and on the day the outcome of the shadow cabinet vote is announced, it will be interesting to discuss how we can take the party forward and how our MEPs will integrate into the shadow ministers' teams, ensuring coherence and unity between our Westminster and Brussels teams on major policy issues such as development, the environment, climate change, the economic crisis, anti-discrimination legislation, social policy and immigration.

As EPLP leader, I look forward to such cooperation in order to get the message across that Labour needs to be strong and focused not just at the local and national level, but also in the European Parliament where day-in and day-out there are important Labour issues and values to fight for.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A special workshop on Swine Flu

This morning I participated in a special hearing in the European Parliament on the way that European Union institutions and agencies and other public health authorities handled the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of last year.

We heard from the European Commission, representatives of the Swedish and Belgian EU presidencies, the director of the European Centre for Communicable Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the director of the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) and the director of WHO Europe.

It was important to have the debate on the lessons we can learn in order to better help us prepare for a future, possibly more deadly pandemic. It was never about a witch hunt or conspiracy theories. As citizens and politicians we expect governments to prepare for the worst, and should the worst happen and preparations were found to be wanting the uproar would be deafening.

Nevertheless there are clearly questions to be answered surrounding how decisions are reached and transparency issues. I am pleased that EU agencies publish names and declarations of interest for key experts and advisors, but questions remain about the WHO, which refuses to publish declarations of interest for its experts and advisors, citing privacy concerns. The answer to my question from the current WHO director for Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakab was that this was being reviewed and she would raise my concerns with WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. Questions also remain over the definition of a pandemic, given that the WHO raised the pandemic level to its highest (level 6), which appears to merely be based on geographical spread, rather than taking account of the severity of the virus, and I believe in future it would be important to distinguish between the two.

Monday, September 27, 2010

What a weekend!

It's been a highly emotional weekend here in Manchester with such a heartfelt and well-received farewell speech by Gordon Brown followed by such a close and nail-biting result on Saturday to determine the new Labour Party Leader.

I was delighted by the outcome. After listening to all the candidates who came to Brussels for hustings with the EPLP, I was highly impressed by all of them. But it was Ed Miliband and his vision for our party which stood out for me and which is why I offered him my support in this campaign. I really think he has what it takes to be a great leader of our party and an even better Prime Minister of our country and I'm sure he is well-placed to unite the party and take us forward in a progressive, inclusive direction.

Of course much of the right-wing media and the Conservatives (who were already lining up even before the result was announced) have come out with their usual vitriolic discourse and will do their best to portray him as in hock to the unions or as 'Red Ed', seeking to undermine his authority and legitimacy.

But as he told Andrew Marr yesterday, Ed Miliband is very much his own man and together with the shadow cabinet he will take his own decisions and reach his own conclusions. He has done no deals and made no rash promises in order to get elected, unlike David Cameron who abandoned Conservative influence in Europe by promising to withdraw from the mainstream centre-right alliance of Europe's political parties, all for the vote of the nasty eurosceptic fringe of his party.

Personally, and as a party, we have no apology to make for the trade unions. Today when I addressed Conference I said the Labour Party should stop sidelining the work we do in the European Parliament and treating it like some embarrassing relative. The same is true for the trade unions. The truth is that the trade unions were instrumental in founding the Labour Party and remain integral to our movement. It is only right and proper that individual trade union members are entitled to their say on who becomes the new leader of the labour movement. These people are our nurses, cleaners, teaching assistants, and so many of those on the front line of our public services. The fact that they have voted for Ed Miliband in their droves is as sure a sign as any that Ed really does get it and his campaign has reached and spoken to the ordinary person on the street.

It's also very interesting that Ed has been elected with over 175,000 individual votes, whereas David Cameron was elected with less than 135,000 votes, so any attempts from the Tories to undermine Ed's position should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

I look forward to working with Ed and the new shadow cabinet team immensely for what is shaping up to be an exciting new era in our party's history.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Strasbourg round-up

In Strasbourg this week two of my Labour colleagues have been instrumental in changing draft legislation for the better.

Firstly, Peter Skinner has helped engineer rules which will put in place a pan-European system of financial supervision, ensuring that where companies operate across EU borders, they will no longer be able to exploit regulatory grey areas between different national regimes. I know both he and Arlene McCarthy have been working for a long time on putting in place a range measures to protect consumers and regulate financial services, to help ensure accountability and responsibility.

Separately Linda McAvan has authored a European Parliament report, amending the European Commission proposal on Pharmacovigilance, in order to make it easier for the side effects and adverse reactions to new drugs to be spotted, and acted upon, more quickly.

There's a general strike in France tomorrow so many British MEPs are leaving this afternoon to avoid being stuck should the country come to a standstill. As a result of the planned strikes there will be no legislative votes taking place tomorrow.

I'll be at Labour Party Conference over the weekend and next week, delivering the EPLP (European Parliamentary Labour Party) leader's speech on Monday morning, speaking at various fringes and welcoming the newly elected Leader of the Labour Party to the EPLP/TULO fringe event on Saturday evening, in what will be one of his or her first appearances.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The fight continues...

This week in Brussels I called together a group of health and consumer NGOs who are supportive of using multiple colour coding on food so consumers can ascertain and compare at a glance the nutritional content of food. I convened the meeting following the disappointing vote by MEPs in June.

In attendance were representatives from Which?, the British Heart Foundation, the British Medical Association, Cancer Research UK, BEUC (the European consumers' organisation), the European Heart Network, and a German NGO called Foodwatch as well as Nessa Childers, an Irish MEP colleague of mine and representatives from other MEPs' offices.

We had a very fruitful discussion, and the consensus was that we would continue with a joint campaign to promote colour coding, to lobby Member States in the Council and ensure that traffic lights can at the very least continue to be used throughout Europe as part of national schemes in the current draft legislation on food labelling, as exemplified by the UK's own traffic light scheme.

We also agreed to work together with a view to launching a Citizen's Initiative, once the rules are in place, to gather 1 million signatures from EU citizens, to pressure the Commission to come forward with a separate legislative proposal and build up support and visibility for this important issue.

Watch this space...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New article on Progress Online - Will Britain be left behind on women’s rights?

Will Britain be left behind on women’s rights?

Another week, another example of the Conservative Party refusing to back women's rights in Europe. Conservative MEPs made clear their views on the subject once again this week when they refused to back a raft of proposals on ensuring women benefit from EU policies.

Whether we were targeting action to cut the gender pay gap, focussing on how we can help women from ethnic minorities to better integrate into society, or voting on ways in which we tackle discrimination against older women, the Tories were steadfast in their lack of support.

On the whole these weren't legislative actions that would commit additional funding or tie anyone down in red tape. They were about sending a political signal to the European Commission about what issues MEPs consider to be important.

And in their votes this week it has become clear that for the Conservative Party women's rights isn't one of those issues.

What is particularly worrying is that this seems to be becoming a political narrative for this government's approach in the EU.

Last week the Guardian reported that the Conservative-Lib Dem government was opting out of pan-EU measures to combat human trafficking. It's a prime example of a policy area in which it makes perfect sense for European countries to work together. No wonder human rights groups have been up in arms.

To make matters worse, this isn't even the first time that the new coalition government, only just 100 days old, has chosen to opt out of measures that would protect women from abuse and violence.

European Protection Orders are an idea currently being considered to ensure that women who receive the backing of the courts to protect them from violent attacks have that protection wherever they are in the EU.

The scheme had the backing of the Labour government but in June, quietly and with little media reporting, Justice Minister Ken Clarke reversed the UK position.

One of the interesting things about being in the European Parliament is that you get to see the different politics of the coalition partners close up. The Lib Dems and Conservatives regularly take opposing positions in the Strasbourg hemicycle.

So far, it looks like when it comes to government policy on women's rights, the Conservative position is winning out every time.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cuts to hit Midlands and North hardest

I wasn’t surprised to see that the Midlands and the North are likely to be hit harder than the South when the public spending cuts bite.

This was the main finding of recent research carried out on behalf of the BBC The study assesses how England's regions may cope with further public sector cuts and looks at four categories; business, community, people and place. It then ranks the different local authorities according to how well they will do when subjected to the economic shocks caused by spending cuts.

Overall the survey does not predict good times ahead for the East Midlands, with only two local authorities in the top 50 best-placed authorities, while seven are in the bottom 50.

But depicting this as a “north-south divide” story as the BBC does is too simple. It’s not just because the Midlands (whether East or West) is not in the North. It’s because we can see major differences within each Region.

In the East Midlands, for instance, Harborough (14th position overall out of 324 local authorities) is next door to Leicester in 302nd position. Similarly Rutland (53rd) shares a border with Corby (202nd). And even within a more affluent area there will be pockets of more deprived communities.

Surveys like these are blunt instruments at best, but what is clear is that the less well-off, wherever they are to be found, are likely to suffer more than the well-to-do. The idea that “we are all in this together” is an insult.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Strasbourg round-up

All in all it's been an interesting session here in Strasbourg this week. I voted in favour of a resolution strongly condemning France's recent deportations of Roma people. These were illegal under European law and the adopted resolution will increase the pressure on the Commission to begin legal action.

I was disappointed that new animal testing rules voted through this week didn't go far enough in providing for a clear mechanism whereby alternatives to animal experimentation can be introduced. I think a lot more could have been done, without stopping researchers continuing their vital work.

Additionally I supported resolutions condemning the stoning sentence of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani in Iran and urging EU governments to step up their response to the humanitarian catastrophe in Pakistan, which sadly has been found lacking.

Why, especially in times of austerity, a pound pooled is more often than not a pound well spent

As much as I may have disagreed with European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, I couldn't help but agree with one particular point he made, which most observers may have missed.

His point was that by 27 Member States pooling money together for joint projects and initiatives, money is saved because a pound pooled goes a lot further than a pound spent nationally.

At a time when budgets are being cut back all over Europe I think this is a point worth repeating. Take research for instance. The EU's FP7 research programme funds research on areas such as cancer, alternatives to animal testing and clean energy. If the same research were to be simultaneously carried out in several individual Member States, that really would be an indefensible duplication and waste of money, particularly in light of the current economic climate.

We can also apply this train of thought to rules on almost any aspect of the internal market, one good example is food labelling, in which I have been closely involved in recent years. One set of rules, rather than 27 different sets, has an overwhelming logic to it, not just in terms of efficient decision-making but also in terms of coherence and simplicity for a company which wants to market its products in more than one Member State.

It might be conceded that decision-making in the European Union can be, to a certain extent, cumbersome and bureaucratic given the need for interpreters, translators, a large administration, and the time and effort required to achieve consensus. I have first-hand experience of this in the European Parliament, but the sheer economies of scale benefits and other benefits gained by cooperating and working together vastly outweigh such inherent disadvantages.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

State of the Union

Today in Strasbourg we were treated to the very first State of the Union address to MEPs by Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso (former centre-right Portuguese Prime Minister).

In his attempt to mimic the traditional yearly address of the US President to Congress, Mr Barroso, true to form, parroted the right-wing view which would have us believe that deficits should be cut at all costs.

Echoing the approach of the Con Dem government and the right-wing press, Mr Barroso's intervention overly simplified the situation by claiming that "money spent on servicing debt is money that cannot be spent on social good". Clearly, the relationship is not that simple. It is not a zero-sum game. Money invested in the economy creates increased economic activity and helps maintain and create jobs and growth, which in turn reduces the welfare bill and increases tax returns, which not only helps avoid the tragic personal cost of unemployment and failing public services but can also help to reduce public deficits more effectively than the severe austerity measures currently being implemented not only in the UK, but across the whole continent.

I stood up to say as much this morning and told Mr Barroso that drastic cuts are not the way forward and continued investment will help safeguard the recovery and avoid a jobs crisis.

I also made a point about overseas aid budgets, which must be upheld and respected. We cannot renege on our promises and commitments of solidarity to those who are most in need, as some Member States are shamefully doing.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Human Trafficking and the UK opt-out

Having watched Channel 4’s recent programmes on Britain’s sex traffickers I found this piece in the Guardian very interesting (Labour Condemn’s UK opt-out from EU directive against sex trafficking), detailing Denis MacShane’s criticism of the coalition government’s decision to opt-out of European legislation designed to improve coordination between EU countries. This directive, which is still in the formative stage, proposes steps to make it easier to convict human traffickers and give new rights to victims. On an issue such as human trafficking, which by definition is of a cross-border nature, the rationale for joint action is surely self-evident even to the most ardent of euro-sceptics?

For David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats to opt-out from this is both puzzling and disappointing. If indeed the UK already complies with most of the draft directive then exactly where does the problem lie? If it is one of anti-European dogma then it is a sad indictment on the Coalition. If the policy is to sit back and let the other Member States decide the directive and then decide whether to opt in at a later date, Cameron and Clegg would be repeating a time-old British mistake. By standing on the sidelines and then opting in later, it means that the UK has no real say on the final outcome but if (and often when) a decision is made to opt-in, we are forced into a take-it or leave-it situation, with no opportunity to influence the particular measure in line with UK priorities or specificities.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Humanitarian aid and the economic crisis

I was pleased to hear EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva announce a further €30 million of aid for those affected by the devastating floods in Pakistan.

There are those who believe that, given the economic situation in Britain and Europe, we are not in a position to be helping others in need around the world. Whilst we are deeply concerned about the hardships that people are facing at home, and are working hard to bring Britain and Europe out of the financial crisis, we cannot abandon our commitment to humanitarian aid and international development. It is wrong that somebody's chances in life depend on where they are born and in times of serious economic difficulties it is even more important that we keep our commitments to those in need.

After the shocking earthquake in Haiti Nick Griffin complained that we shouldn't be sending aid to "rioting ingrates" whilst Britain faces problems of its own. I
condemned these comments immediately. Not only was the situation in Haiti a terrible human tragedy, but also one that happened in one of the poorest countries in the world. That is why of the money Cathy Ashton pledged, at least €200 million is for medium and long term needs.

Meanwhile Labour MEPs are working hard to make sure the financial crisis cannot happen again. Recently my colleague Arlene McCarthy secured
an important deal on curbing bankers' bonuses, and the whole of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament have thrown their support behind a Financial Transaction Tax, which would both stabilise financial markets and raise around €200 billion in Europe to help fight poverty and inequality at home and abroad. The EU is a way for us to find international solutions to international problems, which include both humanitarian disasters and the economic crisis.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Time for UKIP MEPs to grow up

It seems like UKIP MEPs are spending their summer by taking part in a letter writing campaign to their local papers with scare stories about supposed EU plans to require the UK to dissolve dead bodies in acid and tip them down the drain to save on burial space. Nice to know they're enjoying themselves. Unfortunately for them, and they know it all too well, there is absolutely no such plan and indeed the EU doesn't even have the competence to act in this area. It's yet another example of UKIP wasting people's time instead of representing their constituents in a serious manner.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bird flu - mistakes made, and lessons to be learnt

Some interesting news from last week's meeting of Health ministers, where they discussed the reaction to the H1N1 (bird flu) pandemic and by all accounts concluded that by acting together the EU's Member States could have negotiated better terms with the pharmaceutical companies, rather than being picked off one by one with some countries even having to agree to accept all civil liabilities relating to the vaccine.

The Health ministers unanimously agreed to ask the Commission to develop a joint purchasing strategy for vaccines in the event of future pandemics and I fully applaud this move, which should help save money for already over-stretched health budgets in the future.

In the autumn, the European Parliament's environment and public health committee will be hosting a hearing on how the H1N1 pandemic was handled by European governments and what lessons can be learned for the future, where we will invite the Commission, the WHO, NGOs and pharmaceutical industry scientists. It promises to be a very interesting event.

Tobacco control

I spoke today in a debate with Laurette Onkelinx, the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and also Public Health Minister, who will be leading on health for the new Belgian Presidency of the Council of Ministers over the next 6 months.

Specifically I wanted to know how she would be coordinating Novembers' Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on tobacco control and a protocol set to be adopted on illicit trade in tobacco products.

One of the most effective means of reducing tobacco consumption is using taxation to raise prices, but illicit trade undermines this policy, not to mention stimulating organised crime and reducing the public coffers!
What is being proposed is an effective tracking and tracing system on tobacco products so we can see where individual packs have come from, a ban on internet sales which serves no other purpose than to evade taxation, and also it's about time some of those EU Member States who have ridiculously low levels of taxation, agreed to increase the level, as they only serve to undermine other Member States' public health goals.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Hypocrisy from Tories on junk food

It is absolutely disgraceful that, as reported in the Guardian, (No anti-junk food laws, health secretary promises) the coalition government, in the form of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, has apparently given guarantees to the food industry that it will not introduce legislation to tackle the problematic issue of junk food and its role in the battle against obesity, contributing to heart disease, type II diabetes, increased risk of cancer, strokes, liver disease and even depression.

He even has the nerve to claim that his hands are tied on regulating because of European rules. I would like to remind Mr Lansley that just a few weeks ago Conservatives in the European Parliament voted against my proposals for a clear easy-to-understand labelling scheme ,which would have seen key ingredients such as sugar, fat and salt labelled on the front of pack with the colours green, amber and red. Not only did Conservatives vote to defeat this, they also voted to remove the possibility for the UK government to come up with its own plans to give consumers easy to understand information about what they are eating. The hypocrisy of it all is breath-taking.

Fortunately, Member States may still take action beyond the new food labelling rules, and indeed in other areas, for reasons of public health, and if Andrew Lansley doesn't think that Britain's obesity crisis is a risk to public health, then I would suggest he is in the wrong job and should reconsider his position. I'm sure there would be an opening for him in a well-known junk food outlet..

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A way forward for homeowners in Spain?

Today in a debate with Spanish PM Zapatero in the European Parliament, I spoke to remind him of the issue of Spanish property abuses, involving many British citizens, who through no fault of their own face the prospect of losing their homes. I previously raised this issue with Mr Zapatero in January and since then I have been in constructive discussions with MEPs and officials from Spain's ruling socialist party and we have put forward the idea of setting up a commission to deal with the issue, which I hope will get the full support of Mr Zapatero.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Good news for Brits on holiday

As from tomorrow (July 1) the cost of using your mobile phone in another EU country will fall even further and the risk of racking up a bill for thousands of pounds for using e-mails and internet on your phone will also disappear.

The new maximum tariffs will mean that the maximum permitted charge when making a call will be 32p per minute and 12.5p for receiving a call. This latest reduction means that mobile phone roaming charges are now 73% cheaper than 5 years ago.

You phone company will also be obliged to stop your mobile internet connection if you exceed £42.50. This is in direct response to the horror stories of holidaymakers returning home and finding themselves landed with a bill of thousands of pounds, having not realised the true cost of their internet activity. (If you wish to remove this cap you can do so by contacting your mobile operator before you travel).

Euromyths by the dozen

Never mind the arrival of summer, it was silly season which broke out this weekend with the UK papers gleefully denouncing the EU's supposed ban on selling eggs by the dozen, whipping themselves into a fervor over this despicable attack by barmy Brussels bureaucrats on the traditional British way of selling eggs. The tabloids and the Torygraph were ready to send the valiant David Cameron into battle with his European counterparts to save our 'eggs by the dozen'.

Make no mistake, this was a classic Euromyth and the words 'eggs by the dozen' could have been replaced with any other term, with the story adapted accordingly.

Anyone who follows European issues will know the score. Last time it was the traditional British jug of milk
and before it was barmaids' breasts! The familiar voices of disgust are wheeled out such as the Metric Martyrs, Open Europe or the so-called Taxpayers' Alliance, and there is always the odd (in both senses) Tory or UKIP 'rent-a-quote' MEP who is only too happy to add their voice to the outrage, despite having not the faintest idea of the issue at stake.

Of course there was absolutely no truth to the story. I should know as I have been working on this proposal for the best part of two years on behalf of the second largest political group in the European Parliament - although no newspaper saw fit to contact me before publishing their stories, it appears they were only interested in getting their story out. Armed with the facts, I would have only got in the way of their good story!

For the facts (which have fortunately now been published by most of the offending publications) you can check out the rebuttal from the European Parliament here and the Press Association article here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Supermarket supply chains and workers in the developing world

Yesterday in the European Parliament, I hosted a major event bringing together supermarkets, NGOs such as Oxfam, Fair Trade organisations, consumers organisations, MEPs, representatives from the Commission and trade unionists, both from Europe and Latin America.

We discussed the impact of supermarket dominance and their supply chains on workers in the developing world and how the abuse of the supermarkets' dominant market position is leading to downward pressure on prices and on workers' conditions and basis human rights.

We heard first-hand from Gilberto Bermudez from the Costa Rican trade union SITRAP of the appalling anti-union practices workers on the banana and pineapple plantations in Costa Rica suffer from, and I think his testimony opened a few eyes in the room.

It really is up to the supermarkets to ensure their suppliers in the developing world are respecting at the very least basic human rights, including, freedom of association, and an appropriate living wage for their workers - otherwise we will have to take action to address the market dominance enjoyed by Europe's largest supermarkets, and consumers also have an important role to play in changing their behaviour.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A mixed bag of food labelling

Now the dust has settled, last week's plenary vote, as I blogged beforehand might well be described as a mixed bag.

We lost our headline campaign, which was to get mandatory traffic light labelling on processed convenience foods and unfortunately the provision for voluntary national schemes such as the FSA's traffic light scheme was also deleted, with the support of Tory MEPs, which means, somewhat bizarrely, that Tory MEPs voted to reduce their own government's scope to implement its own front of pack labelling scheme, preferring a harmonised EU scheme of percentage GDAs (Guideline Daily Amounts).

Their basis for opposition to my proposals for colour coding appeared to be wholly based on the arguments industry put forward and on industry-supported research.

The first criticism made by Tory MEPs was that the colours were too simplistic so they preferred GDAs. Despite all the information I had sent to them in advance of the vote, they must have failed to spot that the amendments on the table provided for a combination of GDAs and traffic lights - colour-coded GDAs - so rather than simplistic, it actually provided more information than GDAs alone.

The other argument used was that traffic lights would favour diet coca-cola over apple juice on sugar, given the high levels of natural sugars in apple juice and the artificial sweeteners used in diet Coke. If they had bothered to look at my proposal, again they would have seen that fruit juices would not be covered by my amendments.

Colour coding aside, we did win a major (but narrow) victory on mandatory country of origin labelling, with a majority of MEPs voting to ensure honest and transparent food labelling. My amendments as adopted would see food producers obliged to label all meat, poultry, dairy products and other single-ingredient products with the country of origin, and also the meat, poultry and fish contained in processed or multi-ingredient products.

We also secured front of pack labelling for the key nutrients such as calories, salt, sugar and fats and fought off industry-backed attempts reduce consumer protection from misleading advertising of health and nutrition claims.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Left Food Forward article - Cameron plays the statesman in predictable Brussels affair

Cameron plays the statesman in predictable Brussels affair

Our guest writer is Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour’s leader in the European Parliament.

As ever at these occasions, the choreography was exquisite. David Cameron’s first European summit as British prime minister was always going to be of intense interest to the media. Yet in the end, yesterday’s event looked very much like the many that have gone before it. That’s partly because most of the business is sorted out well in advance of the leaders’ arrival.

But it’s also because that’s what international diplomacy demands – it’s in everyone’s interest to head home looking statesmanlike. Here’s a quote from how Cameron sums up the summit’s conclusions on bank levies and a financial transaction tax:

“We do not want to have some sort of Europe-determined bank levy with a specific use of funds. The text talks about – and I quote – introducing systems of levies and taxes, which actually referred to ensuring fair burden-sharing. That is absolutely the approach that we wanted this to take.”

Look elsewhere and you get a different take though. Colleagues tell me that German TV news last night hailed Angela Merkel for her success at the summit. And what was Merkel’s win? They report how she persuaded a sceptical British Prime Minister to change his position and to sign up in favour of a financial transaction tax. Based on the text, either interpretation could be accurate.

That’s the key to summits: you don’t embarrass world leaders. The detail will be ironed out later by diplomats and ministers when they come to debate each individual dossier, so the real battles are yet to come. What can we learn from the summit? Well, I suspect that we can already discern how Cameron will deal with these events. It’s a system that has served British prime ministers, both Tory and Labour, for many years.

First, identify a threat looming on the horizon. Find a dragon to be slayed by St George: in this case all the talk of the European Commission vetting the budget before it is announced to parliament. Second, mark out your red lines, which you already know are unlikely to be crossed. Then, go to the summit and agree a lengthy document that has already been stripped apart and put back together by teams of diplomats. Ensure that anything contentious is qualified with phrases like “taking account of national budgetary procedures”.

I've got a union background, so I know negotiating tactics when I see them. But what's interesting about this example is the fact that this isn't about winning against the other EU leaders. It's all about getting the upper hand over Britain's band of eurosceptics, the press certainly, but also Cameron’s own back benches. It is clear that the Tory leader wants to calm the fears of our EU neighbours by demonstrating that he is willing to work with them.

But it was telling that of all the leaders at yesterday’s event, Cameron felt closest to the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. That’s partly because both men are ideologically similar – at least economically. Both want to see the state cut back, with a focus on deregulation and leaving more to open markets.

Crucially though, it’s also because Cameron is no longer a member of a mainstream political family. Having spurned the EPP, Europe’s mainstream centre right grouping, he had no one to meet when other leaders got together with their opposite numbers from sister parties. Instead he had to meet Michal Kaminski, the MEP who leads the political ragbag of parties with which the Conservatives now sit in the European Parliament.

Cameron is still paying for having left the EPP. It means he has to work harder to get his point of view listened to – not in the summit, but in the corridors and backrooms where the real battles are won.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tense vote

In just a few hours time MEPs will be voting here in Strasbourg on amendments to the new regulation on food labelling and things are quite tense. The votes are shaping up to be very close on two key point: traffic light labels for sugar, salt and fats and mandatory country of origin labelling so that it is clear where our food comes from.

The industry lobby has been intense and unrelenting throughout - and it has caught the attention of much of the media over the last few days, including the Independent, Daily Mail and BBC with headlines such as "Food firms spend millions in push to kill traffic light labelling" and "Food companies in massive lobby to block colour coded warnings".

Thursday, June 10, 2010

First European test for the coalition government's programme

MEPs will be voting next week in Strasbourg on a new legislative proposal which would see mandatory country of origin labelling on much of the food we eat, including meat, poultry, fish and dairy products, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. My amendment to do this was already accepted by the EP's environment committee in March and now there will be a full vote of all MEPs next Wednesday.

The Conservatives supported this in March but rumours are now afoot that they will withdraw their support. This would surely fly in the face of their coalition deal with the Lib Dems, which on page 13 specifies "We will introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from and its environmental impact". Well, this must be done through European legislation and their one chance to do this is in the vote next week....

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The first of our meetings with the candidates

Labour MEPs met with David Miliband yesterday who was over in Brussels as part of his campaign for the Labour Party leadership.

We had a positive and constructive meeting, with a good discussion on the role of MEPs in the party's structure and how as a party we can work together, both locally, national and internationally as part of a labour movement and of course David set out his vision for the future of our party.

I am looking forward to having similar discussions with the other candidates in the forthcoming weeks.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Reducing red tape and bureaucracy

It's a committee week in Brussels this week which is where in-detail scrutiny of legislative proposals occurs.

I have been voting this morning in the Environment committee on an updated directive restricting hazardous substances in electrical and electronic consumer goods. The aim is to get rid of the most harmful substances used such as brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, as well as PVC and the hazardous additives it contains.

We also need to stimulate substitution efforts, to replace substances used in consumer electrical goods with safer ones wherever possible.

This type of work really is the bread and butter here on a daily basis, but nonetheless it needs to be done and these type of rules simply cannot be set nationally - otherwise we would end up with 27 different sets or rules and standards for producers to comply with - so in doing this we are actually reducing red tape and bureaucracy.

Positive meeting with new Europe Minister

From my facebook page:

Glenis Willmott Had a meeting with the new Europe Minister yesterday - surprising to see that he wasn't taking the usual eurosceptic line that we hear so much of. I await with interest to see if all of his MEPs will follow suit. For all of the eurosceptic rhetoric in opposition maybe the reality of having to co-operate in Europe in the national interest has finally hit home.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

European co-operation to increase organ donations

Currently in the European Union over 56,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant which could give them a new lease of life. Every day 12 people die waiting. To tackle this tragic problem there are two things we must do: increase the donation rate across Europe, and effectively and safely use those organs that have been donated.

How can we increase donation rates? Firstly it's important just to talk about it and make people aware of the problem. I saw an
excellent debate on the BBC's The Big Questions where they revealed 90% of people support the idea of their organs being used to save one or more peoples' lives once they've died, but only around 25% of people are on the organ donor register. Signing up is quick and easy and can be done here.

Of course there's the debate about whether the organ donor register should be opt-in or opt-out, which is something that needs further discussion. But there are all sorts of other factors which mean that organ donation rates vary wildly across Europe, from one of the highest rates in the world in Spain (34 donors per million population), to the dismal rate in Bulgaria (1 donor per million population). Today the European Parliament adopted an action plan for the next 5 years to ensure that those working around organ transplantation communicate across borders and share their experiences of what works and what doesn't when encouraging organ donation.

To make sure that we use all the organ donations available to us, the European Parliament today also adopted a report to standardise safety and quality standards for all organ transplants in the EU. This means those patients who are waiting for a rare match could be paired up with a donor from elsewhere in Europe, safe in the knowledge that the donor and organ were subject to the same safety procedures that they would have been in the UK.

In my role as the Labour MEPs' spokesperson for public health, I've been following this legislation closely and have amended it to make it more flexible for the NHS and other health services to work with. I've also defended the developing practices of paired, pooled and altruistic living donation. Paired and pooled donation is where donors who don't match with their relative in need of a transplant donate to someone in a similar situation, and vice versa. Altruistic donation involves somebody volunteering to give an organ, such as a kidney, to a stranger. Of course giving an organ is a big decision, and financial incentives should never be involved.

This brings me on to another awful problem arising from our lack of organ donations, which is organ trafficking. And the only really effective way to combat this terrible crime is to reduce the demand for illegally obtained organs by increasing donation rates.

This is one of the areas where we can reap real benefits for Britain by working together with our European neighbours and I am hoping that today's decisions in the European Parliament will be a significant step towards solving our severe shortage of organ donations. In the meantime, please consider
registering as an organ donor.

The leadership contest

I attended Labour's NEC (National Executive Committee) today where we took decisions regarding the leadership contest and specifically the timeline.

At such an important stage, where we need to reinvigorate and rejuvenate our party, I believe a longer timetable will allow us as a party to have the debate we need to have and allow the candidates to set out their vision for our party. We have nothing to gain by rushing into electing a new leader.

The longer timeline will also allow as many new members to vote as possible. Since the formation of the Con Dem coalition the party has been overwhelmed by thousands and thousands of new members with over 13,000 joining, many of who have resigned from the Liberal Democrats. I am sure many thousands more will follow, and we have set the deadline at September 8 for new members joining to having voting rights.

It is truly sickening to see Cameron calling his coalition with Clegg a progressive alliance, but we all know that events of recent weeks have meant there is only one clearly progressive force in Britain and that is the Labour Party.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gordon Brown

As I watched Gordon Brown outside Downing Street yesterday, announcing his intention to step down as Labour Leader, my thoughts were first and foremost ones of great sadness and injustice, tinged with a not insignificant amount of anger.

For all his faults, and he has been among the first to admit them, I believe history will be kind to Gordon Brown and he will be remembered primarily for his leading role in stemming the global economic crisis. When the moment came Gordon Brown stepped up to the plate and other world leaders followed. It is easy to forget (or purposely disregard) his starring and pivotal role, but had decisive action not been taken, our entire financial system could have collapsed with inconceivable consequences, far beyond those we are currently facing, which already are on an unprecedented scale and of eye-watering magnitude.

But in much of the populist media you certainly won't find any praise, let alone recognition for this pivotal role played by Britain and a British Prime Minister on the world stage. Instead, what we have seen is a sustained, vindictive and frankly undemocratic attack on Gordon Brown. We have witnessed a deeply personal character assassination by the right-wing print and audiovisual media which goes beyond the bounds of acceptability and into a new realm, which for any advocate of democracy should raise serious questions over the role the media plays in our political system, and the influence it is able to exert over public opinion.

But resign Gordon Brown has and as a strong supporter of his, both professionally and personally, I am disappointed at his departure but I do recognise that in the face of both the outcome of the general election and the crescendo of hostile media vilification, the writing was engraved on the wall.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The rules must be respected

Ryanair's u-turn on its threat to ignore EU rules on compensating passengers doesn't come as much surprise. However high its planes may fly, the company is not above the law.

However, it's likely that this will prove to be the opening salvo in an attempt by airlines to challenge passengers' legal rights.

Of course the recent events were unprecedented and it may be that there are lessons to learn. But we mustn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The European rules give people the confidence that they aren't going to find themselves racking up huge costs because an airline has cancelled their flight. They will have brought some level of comfort to the people stranded over the last week and have already helped hundreds of thousands of passengers across the EU.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hanging in the balance

I have written a short article for the Parliament Magazine, the in-house magazine of the European Parliament on the ramifications of the UK general election for the European Union, and the United Kingdom's influence within it.

You can read it by clicking here.