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.