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.