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!