Monday, November 28, 2011

We have moved!

My blog has now been moved to my new website at All of my posts have been moved over to the new site.

You should be automatically redirected there in a few seconds. If not, please click here to visit the new blog.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Another step towards ending blacklisting of workers - but there is still much further to go

To guarantee standards of health and safety, workers need representation. When I drafted the European Parliament's report on Health and Safety in 2007, I found that the presence of health and safety representatives in the workplace lowered the number of occupational accidents and diseases reported, and so any health and safety policy would need to encourage workers' participation.

But in many firms, particularly in sectors such as construction, workers can face discrimination and even dismissal for representing their colleagues in this way. The practice of "blacklisting" - where workers may be refused employment by employers across the whole sector - is a serious problem, despite the fact that it is is illegal in the UK. The result of this is that some people have been unable to work for decades, simply because they have tried to improve the working conditions of their peers.

The issue of blacklisting was brought to me by an East Midlands constituent of mine and by the Blacklist Support Group, who have worked hard to campaign against the illegal practice.

So I am delighted that this week, the European Parliament's Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) called for an end to blacklisting of employees through tougher sanctions for offending employers, thanks in large part to the work of Labour MEP Stephen Hughes. The Committee also called for greater protection for those who blow the whistle about health and safety risks in their workplace. The call, agreed on a cross-party basis, forms part of the Committee's report on the EU's Health and Safety Strategy, and is likely to be adopted by the full Parliament next year.

This followed my own earlier attempt to adopt such a call into in the Committee on Environment, Food and Public Health, which also discussed the report on the Health and Safety Strategy. My amendment (no. 22), which similarly called for a change in the law to end blacklisting, was unfortunately unsuccessful - because the ALDE group of MEPs on the Committee, which includes the Liberal Democrats, decided as a group to join with centre-right MEPs and block the amendment. I am pleased that MEPs on the EMPL committee have not done the same.

Once Parliament adopts the report, the onus will be on the European Commission to respond to Parliament's call and bring forward a change in the law. My Labour colleagues and I will keep working to maintain the pressure on the Commission to do this. This week was an important step towards an end to blacklisting, but there we still have much further to go.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Recession depression

This week an article in the Guardian highlighted the shocking fact that a quarter of all US women are taking anti-depressants or other medications for mental disorders. Unfortunately the picture in Europe is very similar, with the UK and Ireland also dishing out high quantities of anti-depressants, and the rest of Europe following suit.

There are two questions that need to be addressed; whether medication is the best way to deal with mental illness, and why people are feeling increasingly depressed and anxious.

The debate between psychiatry and psychology is an old one; are mental illnesses best treated with medication or with counselling? Obviously each case has to be looked at individually, but in general it does seem that we are moving towards a 'quick-fix' culture of using anti-depressants, when actually the many root causes of depression need to be addressed. These can range from social exclusion, isolation, drug or alcohol use, poverty, grief, physical disease or stress at work. Pharmaceutical companies can make big profits out of anti-depressants, whilst providing counselling and support for somebody going through a difficult phase in their life can be challenging and expensive.

And the problem is getting worse. During these incredibly difficult economic times we have become used to hearing figures being thrown about - GDP falling here, national debt increasing there, interest rates rising everywhere - but much more shocking are the statistics on the human cost of the crisis. In Greece, for example, suicide rates have increased by 40% this year as jobs, wages and pensions are cut. Normal families are finding it difficult to cope under the extreme austerity measures imposed by right wing governments across Europe, and it is no surprise that depression and other mental disorders are on the rise.

This is an issue I'm looking at in the European Parliament and I will be hosting an event in the new year focusing on the effects of the economic crisis on mental health. In the meantime we have to ensure that the economic decisions we make are mindful of the huge implications they can have on people's health and wellbeing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An emotional meeting with sufferers of SCID

Last Saturday, I met Jack and Guy along with their parents to talk about Severe Combined Immunodeficiency(SCID. Both Jack, aged 7 and Guy, aged 6, suffered from SCID when they were both around four months old.

When Jack and Guy were born, they were, as far as their parents were concerned, healthy new born babies. But the joy of their new arrivals was brought to an abrupt end, when their children became very ill in a very short period of time.

Both children were diagnosed with SCID and were taken to Great Ormond Street Hospital, where they were treated by Professor Bobby Gaspar, who is a leading expert in the disease, and was also present at the meeting.

Guy was flown by helicopter, and Jack rushed to London in an ambulance. Both parents became very emotional as they described the agony of seeing their baby taken into the care of medical staff, not knowing if they would see them alive again.

Jack’s parents told me how they set off in the car to London, only to get stuck in traffic, as they saw the blue lights of a Leicestershire ambulance approach from behind, knowing that Jack was fighting for his life inside, and that there was nothing they could do to help.

Severe Combined Immunodeficiency affects many children across Europe, and a simple screening test at birth could prevent the pain and anguish children and their parents go through.

The test costs around 3 pounds to carry out, and there will be an initial set up cost of 2 Million pounds. This may seem like a large amount of money during the current financial crisis, but it is an investment that will pay for itself, especially when you consider that it costs thousands of pounds per day to look after a sick child in intensive care.

Jack and Guy’s story was difficult to listen to at times, and when Guy told the meeting that he thought he would die, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

I am fully behind the campaign to have all new-born children screened for SCID, and will do all I can to make it happen. Because listening to Jack and Guy’s story, and knowing that their suffering could have been prevented, is enough for me to take action.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Crisis for social democracy

There are 27 member states in the European Union. Just one – Slovenia – has a majority social democrat government, following the crushing defeat at the weekend of the Spanish Socialists. With Greece’s PASOK government also being replaced in recent weeks by the technocrats of Lucas Papademos, these are sorry days for progressive politics.

Apart from Slovenia, there are 5 others – Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Luxembourg – where social democrats are members of ruling coalitions. Yet in 1999, 13 out of the then 15 governments in the European Union came from the centre left.

At a time when capitalism – or at least major parts of it – is clearly not giving people what they want; when bankers & financiers continue to take unwarranted bonuses while small businesses and ordinary people are crying out for loans and mortgages, and when economic growth is miniscule if measurable at all, this ought to be the left’s opportunity.

Following World War II, social democracy was the key player in creating more civilised, more egalitarian societies based on a combination of communal services and individual rights. It largely defined what became acceptable in terms of the public provision of health, education, pensions and reasonable working hours.

Yet, after around a century of universal suffrage across the continent, social democracy is getting the thumbs down from millions of people.

So, the crisis of Europe’s economies is also a crisis for the centre-left, and it cannot be solved by better branding or slightly different policy agendas. As I said in my speech to Labour Party Conference in September, we must actually rethink social democracy.

The re-thinking must come from all parts of the Labour movement and beyond; from trade unions, from intellectuals and academics, from practising politicians, from activists, from single interest groups.

But we also need to learn together with socialists and social democrats in France, Spain & Germany, because the answers in a globalised society will be international ones.

People do still aspire to a society based on fairness, on a wider distribution of wealth and income, and on working together to achieve a better world for themselves and their children. It is up to social democrats to meet these aspirations.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The next President must call for an end to the European Parliament's costly "travelling circus" - and so must David Cameron

This week was another busy week in Strasbourg, Parliament's second seat. Due to a stipulation in the Treaties which govern the European Union, all 736 MEPs and many hundreds of staff members must decamp from Brussels to the Alsatian capital for the Parliament's monthly plenary session.

This "travelling circus" costs the taxpayer nearly £175 million and produces an extra 19,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. At a time when public spending is under pressure across Europe and when urgent international action is needed on climate change, all of this is not just unnecessary, but is potentially also damaging to people and their livelihoods.

The majority agree. Nearly 70% of MEPs who responded to a survey in 2010 thought that all of Parliament's plenary sessions should be held in Brussels, not in Strasbourg. More importantly, nearly 1.3 million Europeans have signed a petition to end these needless costs and allow the Parliament to have a single seat in Brussels.

That is why I have co-signed the Official Seat Pledge, and why I have been calling on many of my colleagues in the Socialist Group and across Parliament to do the same. As various candidates line up to run for the Presidency of the European Parliament, we are calling on them to promise that they will push for a single seat for the Parliament. With the President's support, Parliament will be able to request a change to the Treaties which govern Parliament's official seat.

As I wrote earlier this year, I led an initiative to cut down on the number of Strasbourg trips, by condensing the two September sessions in to a single week. Whilst this would not be an end to the Strasbourg carousel, it would at least reduce the costs and the workloads involved for now (though the decision is currently being challenged in the courts by the French Government).

However, the agreement of all national governments, including the UK's, will be needed to change the Treaties. Unfortunately, the Tory-led Government has flip-flopped on the issue. In May this year, David Cameron supported the One Seat campaign. Yet in September, in a behind-the-scenes deal, he betrayed his own MEPs - not to mention UK taxpayers - and withdrew his support.

Strasbourg is a symbolic and historic city, having been at the centre of conflict in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is right that we recognise that by having important European institutions in the city, such as the Council of Europe (not part of the EU), the EU's Ombudsman, and perhaps further institutions in the future.

But at such a high economic and environmental cost, a second seat for the European Parliament is not the right way to do this. If we are to put an end to the Parliament's costly to-ing and fro-ing between two cities, David Cameron needs to think again and act in the interests of UK and European citizens - rather than his own.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Unemployment - Ministers must stop the blame game.

Earlier today, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released the latest unemployment figures. The statistics show that unemployment has risen to 2.62 million, but more worryingly, the youth unemployment rate has hit the 1 million mark. Overall, this means that unemployment has increased to 8.3%.

In the finest tradition of this Tory led government, the Employment Minister, Chris Grayling blamed someone else for the worst figures in 17 years – This time, it wasn’t the previous Labour government, the weather or a Royal wedding, but the economic crisis in the Eurozone.

It appears that Ministers, in their attempt to spin their way out of these disastrous figures, have forgotten the first rule of economics, that unemployment is a lagging indicator of the economy, and so cannot be blamed on a financial crisis that only started during the summer.

Mr Grayling’s assertion that the Eurozone is to blame is a work of pure fiction. The government’s own statistics show that unemployment was going up before the economic crisis in Europe started, showing a rise from 2.45 million in the three months from March to May, to 2.57 million from June to August.

So once again the government fails to take responsibility for its own actions. The economic crisis in the Eurozone will inevitably have an impact on the UK, but David Cameron and his Ministers need to start taking responsibility for the decisions that they make and stop blaming everyone else for their failing economic policies.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The healthy chocolate doughnut?

More and more people want to make healthy choices in terms of the food they eat, but when deciding which food should go in the shopping trolley it can get a bit confusing. A certain brand of breakfast cereal might be 'fortified with vitamins and iron' but actually contain around 40% sugar. And a 'low fat' brand of crackers might actually be extremely high in salt. Then, of course, you have the foods that 'boost your immune system' or 'lower your cholesterol', but can these claims be trusted?

That is why MEPs and European governments agreed the Health Claims Regulation, which should ensure that all the claims you see on food are scientifically verified. The European Food Safety Authority is currently assessing the huge amount of claims manufacturers want to use, and have so far found that only around 20% have a sound scientific basis and should be allowed. The rest will soon be illegal, which just goes to show how many unfounded and misleading claims exist on the market.

Another part of the regulation was to ensure that health claims were not used on foods that are, on balance, unhealthy. This involves setting limits on the amount of fat, saturates, sugar and salt that can be in a product bearing a health claim. However, we are still waiting for the European Commission to come forward with these maximum amounts. In the meantime we could have manufacturers marketing a chocolate doughnut as 'healthy' because of the fibre it contains, or vitamins that have been added to it. I have been calling for these maximum limits to be set for years, but in a recent exchange of letters with the Commission it is clear that there is still no concrete date.

In the meantime shoppers should make use of consumer-friendly schemes such as the traffic light system used in many supermarkets which allows you to see how high or low a product is in fat, saturates, salt and sugar at a glance. Unfortunately, for the timebeing, some of these health claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Berlusconi loses his job, but the real tragedy is the thousands of normal Italians losing theirs

Drama is unfolding across Europe today as Greece swears in a new Prime Minister and Italy awaits Berlusconi's official resignation. The rising Italian interest rate has meant debts have become uncontrollable for the EU's third largest economy, and the Senate today approved the drastic austerity measures demanded by the European Union.

It is an extremely worrying time for ordinary Greek and Italian people who are seeing widespread job losses, rising retirement ages, and diminishing standards of living. Sadly it will be these normal hard-working families who bear the brunt of the 'punishment' right wing governments across Europe want to inflict on Eurozone members with high debts.

Because we have to remember that it's not 'Brussels' trying to entrench austerity across Europe, it's the vast majority of EU countries which are run by right-wing parties, and the large number of right-wing European Commissioners we have. Unfortunately the Social Democrats in the European Parliament are at their lowest ebb ever too. The likes of Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron are in power in Europe, and all think that drastic cuts are the answer to the current crisis.

We can see from our own economy that cuts alone do not work - the UK was recovering strongly up until summer 2010 when it ground to a halt as the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition embarked on its austerity programme. What we really need is to focus on growth and long term solutions for the Eurozone, as well as showing some solidarity with our European neighbours. Because it is clear, if the Eurozone fails, our economy will be dragged down with it. And if we don't invest in jobs then unemployment, especially among young people, will continue to rise along with our debts.

One way we could generate some capital to invest in our future would be a financial transaction tax, which would ensure that those responsible for the crisis contribute to clearing up the mess. Bonuses continue to be paid out and large profits continue to be made by the financial sector while the rest of society suffers. Support is growing for a global or EU-wide Robin Hood tax, and George Osborne is becoming an increasingly lone voice in opposing it.

Alongside the financial transaction tax, the European Parliament is also looking at Eurobonds. These would allow Eurozone countries to benefit from cheaper loan rates by spreading the risk across all Eurozone countries, preventing excessive debts such as the ones we are seeing in Italy. And Britain must not stand on the sidelines as we negotiate these measures; we might not be in the Eurozone but it cannot be denied that we are all at risk if Greece or Italy defaults.

The right's answer to the crisis is not working, and we need to make sure the Labour Party and our allies across Europe have a strong voice in fighting for a more prosperous and fair economy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Parliament calls for new public contracts rules - but that doesn't let the Government off the hook

As my constituents are only too aware, the Tory-led Government's decision on Thameslink this summer will cost up to 1,400 jobs directly, and many thousands more indirectly in the region.

This major public contract was awarded to the lowest-cost bidder, without taking into account wider social and economic factors.

So yesterday in Strasbourg, I welcomed the European Parliament's call for tougher new rules for public procurement.

When a public contract is awarded, MEPs have said that the lowest price should no longer be the main factor in deciding which bid is successful. Instead, social, economic and environmental benefits should always be considered and standards should be driven up in areas such as quality of employment and sustainability.

Whilst new legislation is desperately needed, this doesn't let the Government off the hook. Even under the current rules, the Government could have chosen to take into account a number of economic and social criteria, rather than opting for the 'lowest-cost only' option.

The Government could also have chosen to start the process again from scratch, with better social and economic criteria. As a Director General of the European Commission confirmed, this would have been permissible under the existing procurement law - but the Government have refused to do so.

MEPs are calling for the European Commission to put new social procurement rules into the legislation it will be bringing forward earlier this year. I am also calling on the Commission to make sure all Governments make full use of these new rules. A repeat of the disastrous Thameslink decision must not be allowed.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Our priority should be jobs - not a referendum that would put jobs at risk

Once again we have been forced to witness an out-of-touch Conservative Party tearing itself apart over Europe. The government was always going to win the EU referendum vote, and Parliament has made the right decision. But David Cameron has been weakened both at home and abroad, at a time when what we really need is strong leadership.

In the current economic climate, the number one priority of all politicians should be boosting jobs and tackling the grave economic situation we face.  A referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union would not generate a single long-term job or do anything to help hard working families who are struggling to make ends meet.  In fact, if we seriously considered giving up our place in the most powerful trading bloc in the world, Britain would jeopardise its position as a credible world player and put foreign investment into the UK at risk.  And if the Eurosceptics were to win such a referendum, helped by the disproportionately anti-European press, it would be disastrous.  Approximately 3.5 million British jobs depend on Britain's access to the single market, and if we do not have a voice at the table where the common rules for that market are made, we will end up like Norway, implementing all European laws without having any say on their content.

Over the last few months, whilst the Conservative Party have been indulging in naval-gazing and internal disputes, Labour MEPs have been working hard to pass laws on bankers' bonuses, secure long term reform of the financial services sector,  reduce data roaming charges and secure new rights for Brits who fall victim to crime in other EU countries.  In order to get these results we actively and positively engage with our colleagues from different countries.

David Cameron needs to be doing the same.  The Eurozone crisis is our crisis too - but, having lost credibility with his counterparts, the Prime Minister is not showing the leadership we need.  At the last European Summit Nicolas Sarkosy is reported to have told Cameron to stop "interfering".  He desperately needs to focus on rebuilding relations with other EU leaders to deliver a stable solution to the Eurozone crisis. Jobs depend on it, and that is what really matters to the British people.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dog blog for found hounds & merrier terriers

As UK MEPs we receive a pretty regular postbag on various animal welfare issues.  But it’s obviously not just Britain which is a nation of animal lovers.  With the majority of MEPs across the 27 Members States recently signing a Written Declaration on the way dogs are treated in the EU, a clear message has been sent to the European Commission to come up with some new policies to address a serious problem.  

Historically, there have been huge differences in animal welfare across the countries of Europe.  The treatment of animals has, for the most part, been the responsibility of the member state, rather than the EU.   In fact, until 1997, under EU law, animals were actually treated as goods rather than live creatures.

It was new EU treaties, however, which changed this.  The Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 introduced the concept of animals as “sentient beings”, and the much maligned Treaty of Lisbon actually incorporates this directly as an Article of the Treaty.  As a result, it has made it possible to introduce much more legislation about the way we treat animals.

The Written Declaration supported by Parliament calls for compulsory micro-chipping of dogs along with an effective and reliable system of dog registration. This is not only crucial for successful animal health & welfare management, but should also lead to reuniting stray dogs with their owners, help prevent the illegal puppy trade and would allow better prevention of disease through vaccination, thus protecting human public health, as well as the health of our pets.

And through a more considered approach to controlling dog population through systematic neutering and educational strategies and programmes, we can prevent the awful killing of healthy animals, as has taken place in Romania.

Having been one of the early signatories to the Declaration, I’m delighted it has gained such support from Parliament.  Dog-lovers everywhere now await some positive proposals from the European Commission.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why can’t we be like Norway?

Amidst dire threats of three line whips, potential resignations, and cries of “Britain out,” the Tories will get to debate their favourite topic in Westminster next week.  Like moths to a flame, Conservative MPs seem unable to keep away from arguments about Europe, an issue which has been a source of huge divisions amongst right wingers for thirty years.

I have little doubt that, somewhere in the debate, we will hear the hoary old question; “Why can’t we be like Norway?”  Able to go their own way, not beholden to the Brussels bureaucrats, not subject to all that red tape, surely Norway is the answer?

Well, because it’s not quite as simple as that. 

This week in Brussels, I actually had a meeting with representatives of the Norwegian government (Labour by the way, so maybe the Tories don’t want to be exactly like Norway).  They weren’t there to offer me political asylum from the austerity measures of our Coalition government, or indeed to discuss the Nobel Peace prize.

They actually wanted my help in changing two pieces of EU legislation; the tobacco products and audio visual directives.

Their specific concerns need not detain us here.  But why would Norway – a country outside the EU – be worried about EU law?

Quite simply because, as a member of the European Economic Area, which has favoured trading status with the EU, Norway has to conform to EU laws.

I’ve heard it referred to as “government by fax.”, though I’m sure there is a modern internet based equivalent.   It means receiving new laws in government offices in Oslo without the opportunity, or indeed the power, to influence the content of the laws emanating from Brussels.   The European Union goes through its lengthy and considered democratic process involving all 27 member states and their European MPs, leading to the eventual consensus agreement.   Meanwhile Norway has no say in any of this but has to do what the law says!

So to the Tory MPs who even now are planning their Commons speeches and preparing for their finest hour, a gentle word of advice.  By all means argue that we should be like Norway – but at least recognise that it would mean having to put up with what the EU – without any input from the UK - would demand of us, assuming we wanted to trade with them.  
And it would mean representatives of the British Government arranging meetings with French, German, Italian or Latvian MEPs to ask for their help.  Perhaps not quite what the “Britain Out” fanatics are after!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fox on the run highlights lobby activity

The Liam Fox affair in the UK has once again highlighted lobbying activity and its role in the democratic process. 

You’ll generally find lobbyists towards the bottom of the popularity league table, along with the usual suspects such as estate agents, journalists, bankers, . . .and of course politicians.
Like death and taxes, lobbyists will always be with us.   So, are they undemocratic propagandists with only the interests of their lords and masters to consider, ready to use any means to get their way, or, as the European Parliament website suggests, do they “provide Parliament with knowledge and specific expertise in numerous economic, social, environmental and scientific areas.”

The only rule seems to be that there are no rules.   For every example I’ve come across where lobbying has been partial, obstructive and anti-progressive, there is another, where the lobbying can provide important insights to help effective legislation.

When I was working on new food labelling laws earlier this year, a reputed €1 billion was spent by the food industry opposing new rules for front of pack labelling, for traffic lights and for other improvements all called for by consumer  and health groups and clearly demanded by the vast majority of customers.

However, a more recent lobby, by members of the National Farmers Union in the East Midlands, was a useful contribution to the debate about the new proposals for the Common Agricultural Policy, and helped me – a non-farmer – to clarify the issues in my own mind while increasing my awareness of the situation facing a particular group of my constituents.

In the European Parliament, new rules for lobbyists came in earlier this year, and while it remains to be seen how effective the new regime will be in regulating lobbying behaviour, there have been some important improvements.  For example, there is now a lobby register, which clarifies who they are, what their interests are, as well as requiring them to provide a limited amount of financial information.  Above all, we have established a code of conduct for lobbyists, with access denied to Parliament as well as adverse publicity if the code is broken.  

We've taken action here in the European Parliament, and it's time David Cameron finally put forward some proposals for how the UK Parliament regulates lobbyists

Friday, October 14, 2011

Plain packets for cigarettes?

This week the Australian Senate delayed a vote on standardised packaging for cigarettes after intense pressure from tobacco lobbyists.   The EU, too, should be considering proposals on plain packaging but it's the same story; extreme pressure from the pro-tobacco lobby has meant the European Commission has delayed the proposals until April 2012 at the earliest. 

This is not acceptable.  There is a real appetite to start work on the revision of the Tobacco Products Directive, which regulates how cigarettes and other forms of tobacco can be packaged, and what can be put inside them.  I've been working with a huge range of health and consumer groups, including the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK, to promote policies which will actually reduce the amount of tobacco we use in the UK and across Europe.  Tobacco is the biggest cause of preventable deaths globally, it kills one in ten people worldwide and half of all smokers will be killed by it.  And the damage it causes costs EU countries 100 billion euro a year.  We have to get on with changing our laws to help people quit and stop young people from smoking in the first place. That is why today I sent a letter to the President of the European Commission, co-signed by 21 NGOs and charities, major pharmaceutical companies and 27 other MEPs from different political parties all over Europe, to urge for the proposals to be brought forward.

Once MEPs start work I will be fighting to see standardised packaging for tobacco products.  The tobacco industry themselves have admitted that the cigarette packet is the last possible place for them to advertise on, and there are some obvious examples of branding being used to make cigarettes look 'milder' or less harmful, or to specifically appeal to young people or women, such as the ultra-feminine Vogue brand.  So called 'plain' packaging would not just be a white box, but instead green or brown coloured with a large pictorial health warning, and the brand name in a standard font. They would be no easier for counterfeiters to copy than a current packet.

I'll keep pushing the Commission so that MEPs can start this important work, and in the meantime I wish Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon every success with her attempts to protect the health of Australian citizens.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Real life 'Lassie dogs' detect epileptic fits

Today I hosted an event in the European Parliament on epilepsy.  As a chair of the Parliament's Health Sub-Committee I chose to focus on this neurological disorder which affects around 1 in 100 people in the UK and across the EU. 

Anyone can develop epilepsy at any time in their life but it is most commonly diagnosed in children and people over 65.   An epileptic fit is a very frightening experience for the sufferer and there is often no warning of when it will happen.  But what we heard today was that specially trained dogs can warn epilepsy sufferers of an upcoming seizure.  The dogs can quite literally be life savers.

The danger from an epileptic fit is not actually the condition itself, it is from the environment in which the fit takes place. Patients will often smash their heads against objects or fall down stairs. These dogs can predict an epileptic fit up to an hour before an attack happens, therefore allowing the patient to get to a place of safety.  I was surprised to learn that the dogs can also reduce the amount and intensity of the fits - amazing!  The benefits to sufferers of epilepsy are vast, however, there are benefits to the NHS too, which saves money and time because the patient doesn’t have to have an ambulance called or make a hospital visit. 

We were given this presentation by an expert from Croatia, but the dogs are also specially trained by Epilepsy Action in the UK.  I hope today's meeting helped raise awareness across all of Europe for this fantastic practice which can be a real help and comfort to people affected by epilepsy.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Doctors must be able to communicate with their patients

Yesterday I spoke to BBC Record Europe about possible EU rule changes to ensure doctors are proficient in English before being allowed to practice in the UK.  This comes after a small number of very serious incidents, including the case of David Grey, killed by a painkiller overdose prescribed by a German doctor previously refused work due to his poor English skills.  Some blamed the current European Professional Qualifications Directive for preventing employers from refusing to let a doctor practice based on their language skills.  That simply isn't true, in fact the current Directive states that they must have the language skills necessary to perform their duties in whichever EU country they are working in.

However, it does highlight the need to make the European rules stronger to ensure that these kinds of mistakes can never be made again.  Currently it is up to the individual employer to make a judgement on whether a doctor has the necessary language abilities, so we need to look at a more comprehensive system of assessing language skills.  The European Commission has published a green paper with ideas to update the Directive, and the European Parliament has also been voting on the ideas.  With my Labour MEP colleagues I will be supporting stricter controls on language assessment to make sure all healthcare professionals can communicate effectively with their patients and colleagues.

We will also be calling for a robust alert system so that when a doctor is struck off in one country, they are not allowed to put more lives at risk in another EU country.  Whilst we wait for European rules to be improved the NHS needs to be able to communicate and share information effectively about the suitability of doctors.  However their ability to do this is one of many things that Andrew Lansley's breaking up of the health service is putting in jeopardy.

Of course we need a balanced approach and any rule changes should not discriminate against highly skilled and much needed healthcare professionals from around the EU, who provide a valuable service to Britain.  However, communication with patients is key to the work of any healthcare professional and we need to make sure we are only employing people who can work safely and effectively in the British health service.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tory Euro MPs declare war on Cameron

The Tories being split over Europe is not exactly breaking news, but the most recent spat is breaking some new ground.  An unholy alliance of Tory and Liberal Democrat Euro MPs is hammering David Cameron over his latest bit of (in) action.

Some months ago the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to cut back on the amount of time they spent in Strasbourg.  The cost of the two seat arrangement, where once a month, the Parliament heads some 220 miles down the road to Strasbourg from its main base in Brussels,  and costs in excess of £150m per year.

This hasn't gone down well with the French government for whom Strasbourg has a symbolic significance (though losing the Parliament would cost the local economy too), and has taken the European Parliament to court.

You would have thought that with Cameron's pronouncement on the expense of Strasbourg and promises to reform the EU that he would have sided with the Parliament, but he hasn’t. The date has now passed when the UK Government can object to the French action and so a pretty vitriolic letter has winged its way from the Group of Tory MEPs to Downing Street accusing Cameron of ‘betrayal’.

Liberal Democrat MEPs are also unhappy and are backing the Tories on this issue. This is very uncommon, as Tories and Lib Dems in Europe do not share the cosy relationship that they do in the UK, in fact quite the opposite.

None of this, however, comes as any great surprise to Labour MEPs.  After all, Tory Governments have form in this area.  Indeed, it was a British Tory PM, John Major who signed up under the Maastricht treaty in 1992 - to having twelve sessions a year in Strasbourg in the first place

As someone who co-signed the original resolution to restrict the times we upped sticks and moved lock stock and barrel to Strasbourg, I'm disgusted at Cameron’s timidity to do the right thing, but not as surprised as his own MEPs seem to be.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Labour Party provides an alternative in Britain and Europe

It’s been an interesting week at party conference.  As it becomes ever clearer that the British economy is being choked rather than resuscitated by austerity, we in the Labour Party need to provide an alternative.  Ed Miliband’s excellent speech on Tuesday clearly outlined that we must focus on growth to survive this crisis, and the Tory-led government’s brutal cuts just aren’t working.

And they’re not working elsewhere in Europe either.  When I spoke to conference on Monday as the leader of Labour MEPs, I wanted to make it clear that the deepening financial crisis in the Eurozone is not about a failure of Europe, but a failure of the right wing politicians who currently dominate the European Commission, Council and Parliament.  Just as Ed is fighting for an alternative in Britain, we need to work together with our colleagues in the EU to find a solution for all of Europe.  It is crucial that we don’t turn our backs on Europe when they need us most, because if the Eurozone fails, we fail.  

And the interest in European matters this conference was astounding.  Our Europe reception on Monday night was one of the most popular all week, with about 900 people attending and a huge queue outside the door.  We also held three fringe events, all of which were packed and it was fantastic to see so many people engage in European issues.   Richard Howitt and Claude Moraes used their experience on foreign affairs and migration at our event on the Arab Spring, and Arlene McCarthy and Peter Skinner, our leads on economic affairs, were impressive at our event on financial reform.  I took part in our joint event with the GMB union on why austerity is not the answer, Linda McAvan spoke passionately at the Labour Movement for Europe fringe and Mary Honeyball hosted an event on women in power.  It was great to have the expertise of Labour MEPs on show.

As we leave conference I’m encouraged to have seen that despite the huge challenges we face, both in Britain and in Europe, the Labour Party is the only party that has hope for the future and a commitment to working together, not apart.   

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Let's not turn our back on Europe

On Monday morning I delivered my speech as Labour’s Leader in Europe to Party Conference.  With Europe in economic crisis I felt it was important to get a strong message across about how we in Britain work with our European neighbours.  Often I’m told that the recent chaos must mean that the EU is somehow broken, that the Eurosceptics were right all along.  And those views are increasingly coming from within our own party.

What is clear is that the supposed remedies to the current turmoil are making things worse, not better.  This is where the real failure in Europe lies; in the hollow ideology being driven by the European Right.  Simply they say we must have less; less investment in the technologies and industries of the future, less opportunities for our young people, less employment and less power for working people.

And it is that ideology which is winning out across the EU, as the Left in Europe is at its lowest ebb since before the Second World War.  As recently as 1999 we were in power, or sharing power, in 12 out of the then 15 EU countries.  Today, despite Helle Thorning Schmidt's great victory in Denmark earlier this month, that figure is just 8 out of the now 27 Member States.  And since the disastrous 2009 elections the Social Democrats in the European Parliament are at their weakest ever.

Part of the explanation for why we are doing so badly may be that the world our grandparents fought for has, in so many ways, been achieved.  Free health care, universal education, and systems of social benefits from cradle to grave are established across Europe.  The social democratic solutions which transformed the last century were forged amid the rubble of European war.  Today we face ruins of a different sort.  Once again social democrats must stand together and rise to the new challenges that Europe faces.  Ed Miliband is right to say we have to re-found Labour here at home, but that must be within the broader context of all of us re-founding social democracy across Europe.

As Europe faces its greatest challenge since 1945, let's not turn our backs.  We must work together with colleagues across the EU, since globally produced problems can only be solved globally.  The answers cannot be for Labour in Britain alone, and in this interconnected world Europe must be part of the solution.  As always the driving force must be our enduring Labour values; solidarity, social justice, the strongest helping the weak; the same values that drove those rebuilding Europe more than 60 years ago.  That is how we will secure the future for generations to come.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tobacco smoke and discrimination against workers' representatives: new threats to health and safety at work

One of our most important rights in the workplace is our right to be healthy and safe. Yet each year, 168,000 people in Europe die and a further 300,000 suffer permanent disability from work-related accidents and diseases.

So one of my proudest achievements as an MEP is the report I steered through the European Parliament on the EU's Health and Safety Strategy. I was delighted when this was officially adopted as Parliament's response at the beginning of 2008.

Parliament welcomed the 5-year target to reduce accidents at work by a quarter. But I called for the strategy to go much further than that. We also needed policies and targets to reduce work-related diseases, such as musculo-skeletal disorders, cancer, and mental illness. And we needed to focus on workers who were at risk of work-related health problems or accidents, such as young and ageing workers, migrant workers, and temporary agency workers.

Four years on, Parliament is now debating a review of the EU's Health and Safety Strategy. Progress has certainly been made, but we still need to press the European Commission to do more to track the changes in work-related accidents and illnesses, so that we can be sure we are meeting our targets for 2012. We also need to keep pushing for protection for the most at-risk workers.

The review is also a good time to raise awareness of new threats. I will be putting down an amendment on tobacco smoke at work. Despite all the progress we have made on smoking, we still do not enjoy comprehensive protection from tobacco smoke in the workplace. Tobacco is the biggest cause of preventable illness today, killing 114,000 people a year in the UK and 650,000 people across Europe. With this amendment, we are calling for action to protect our right to smoke-free air at work.

I will also be putting forward an amendment on 'blacklisting' and other forms of discrimination against workers and their representatives. It has been shown that health and safety is improved when workers have proper representation, allowing employees to take part in promoting health and safety at work. But recently, I have heard from people in my constituency and from members of the Blacklist Support Group who have been blacklisted and refused employment for representing their co-workers in this way. I am calling for a change in European law to put a stop to this.

As well as improving our quality of life, better health and safety is good business. It leads to higher performance from employees and lower costs for both the employer and the taxpayer. So neither the economic crisis nor the Government's spending cuts are a reason to forget about health and safety at work: it is now more important than ever.

Friday, September 16, 2011

For 4,000 workers, the Remploy factories are irreplaceable - the Government must genuinely listen to them

When someone proposes to make thousands of people redundant - and at the same time take away their best chance of finding work - those workers deserve an opportunity to put their own case forward.

So when Liz Sayce's report recommended in June that funding for the 54 Remploy factories across the UK should be cut, leading to their closure, the 4,000 Remploy workers were promised that there would be a full consultation before a decision was taken.

Remploy was founded after the Second World War to provide employment for disabled people, including those returning home from the battlefields. It has decades of expertise in enabling people with disabilities to work and play a full part in society. If the factories are closed, much of that expertise could be lost.

Sadly, this week I have written to Maria Miller, the UK's Minister for Disabled People, to raise my concerns that the promise of full consultation has not been fulfilled.

After the Government organised a series of "regional roadshows" to discuss the proposals, 1,000 employees formally applied to attend - but each session was ultimately limited to just 60 Remploy workers, to be selected by managers. Workers were not allowed to ask their Trade Union representatives to attend with them.

In the East Midlands, where there are Remploy sites at Chesterfield, Derby, Leicester and Worksop, not a single "roadshow" has been organised. Workers may have to travel over 80 miles to get to the nearest event.

Employees are already angry and hurt at the proposals. As a former GMB officer representing Remploy workers, I know that there is a great deal of support available for people at Remploy sites - not all of it purely work-related - which is simply not available elsewhere. When I have visited Remploy, employees have told me that for them, the factories are not just workplaces, but also the centre of their communities and social networks. It is simply not enough just to say that all these people can find 'mainstream' jobs elsewhere.

The Government must make sure it has genuinely listened to the full Remploy workforce. Not only is that the minimum they should be able to expect - but the Government must realise the full extent of what the Remploy factories do for their workers, and what a huge loss their closure would be.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Actions speak louder than words for the UN Summit on Non Communicable Diseases

Next week the UN will hold a summit on Non Communicable Diseases, which include cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and which are all on the rise.  In preparation of this meeting I have been working on a European Parliament Resolution stating Europe's commitment to tackling these growing problems.

I think everyone can agree that these diseases are devastating lives and families across Europe, and they need to be addressed.  I'm glad we're setting a strong and coherent European line for the UN Summit but what's most important is that we act on what we say.

We all know that the rising rate of obesity and poor nutrition across Europe means more and more people are at risk from a whole range of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), so it still amazes me that we failed to go further in promoting healthier diets in the recent food labelling negotiations.  Unfortunately some MEPs and European governments decided to listen more to the food and drink industry than to the health experts.

We also know that tobacco is the biggest cause of NCDs, but yet we're still waiting for the European Commission to come forward with proposals on revising the Tobacco Products Directive.  If we get this directive right we could make smoking less appealing to young people and drastically cut the numbers dying from entirely preventable cancers and respiratory diseases.  Unfortunately it seems that the tobacco industry is so far being successful in stopping decisive action against NCDs.

I will continue to fight for policies that benefit people's health, and I hope the resolution we adopted today will be translated into real action to fight these diseases.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

David Cameron's attack on worker's rights is no substitute for a plan for growth and jobs

EU legislation provides guarantees for employees on their working hours, paid holidays and the right to be consulted, as well as on many other issues.

Last week, the Prime Minister, speaking before a committee of senior MPs, said he was unhappy with these rules. This came just a day after reports that he is seeking to water down proposed new rights for agency workers, which are being brought in as a result of the EU's Agency Workers Directive.

Labour in Europe has fought long and hard to protect people's rights at work. The Agency Workers' Directive is just one example of this: the Directive was adopted in 2008 with strong backing from Labour MEPs and against opposition from the Conservatives. We were disappointed to see the introduction of the new rights delayed until 2011 in the UK.

Once it has been implemented here, the Directive will give agency workers, after 12 weeks of employment, the same employment rights as workers who are recruited directly by their employer. These rights include not only their pay, but also the basic conditions many workers take for granted - such as holiday pay, sick pay or access to facilities and training.

Cameron has chosen to portray all of this as an issue of national sovereignty, saying that labour issues "would be better dealt with at the national level." But in fact this is simply a further attack on workers' rights. The Conservative-led Government believes this is somehow the best way to bring about economic growth - earlier this year, for example, the Chancellor was forced to make a U-turn on his plans to promote growth by reducing maternity and paternity rights for employees of small businesses.

Instead of undermining British employees, the Government urgently needs an economic Plan B to promote growth and jobs in the UK.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A welcome end to the lifetime ban on gay blood donations

I was really pleased to hear that finally the unfair lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood would be lifted in the UK .
New rules will be based on science rather than prejudice.  Instead of a lifetime ban there will need to be a 12 month gap between donating blood and a man's last sexual encounter with another man.  This is because there is a three month period after infection with HIV when it cannot necessarily be detected in the blood.  It is vital that we get more people donating blood, and the last thing we should be doing is needlessly discriminating against people whose blood is perfectly safe.
The rules are still much tighter on homosexual men than there are on heterosexual men, who can donate blood regardless of how many sexual partners they have had or whether or not they use condoms, but this is still a real step in the right direction.  
I have been campaigning for the ban to be lifted and recently wrote a question to the European Commission asking about the legality of blanket bans for homosexual men.  Their answer revealed that under EU law such bans are illegal as they are discriminatory and illogical, underlining that "sexual behaviour" is not the same thing as "sexual identity".  I hope that other EU countries with blanket bans will follow the UK 's lead to end the prejudice, and I will continue to put pressure on the Commission to act if they don't.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Anti-cancer virus brings hope and challenges

Reports have been coming out this week of successful trials of specific viruses being used to treat cancer.  The viruses have been shown to only attack cancerous tumours and to have no effect on healthy cells.  One trial, using a form of smallpox vaccine virus, showed promising results on the 23 trial patients, and another trial using the rabies virus on a childhood cancer effectively destroyed the cancerous cells.

Having worked in medical science for many years I'm really excited and encouraged to see these promising results.  But our fight against cancer will be long and hard.  There are many different types of cancer, and each has to be treated in a different way.  Many forms of cancer are rare diseases, including childhood cancers, and even cancer experts don't know much about some of them.

That is why it is important that we revise the current European clinical trials directive to make it easier for clinical trials, such as those using virus therapies, to be carried out.  Currently the costs and administration involved in trialling new drugs and treatments means that rarer cancers can often be forgotten about.  If we can reduce this burden on researchers then we could be seeing much more of these exciting results.  It's also vital that we have the same standard of clinical trials across all 27 members of the EU.  That way trials can be carried out cross-border, as sometimes there just aren't enough patients in one country for a clinical trial to be possible.  The European Parliament will be looking at adapting the rules soon, and I will be fighting hard to make sure we can treat all types of cancer as effectively as possible.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Healthy children for a healthy future

Over the last few years campaigns such as Jamie Oliver's School Dinners and television shows such as LazyTown have helped raise awareness of childhood health and obesity, but we still have a long way to go.

Recently a number of studies have proved the vital importance of good nutrition for children.  A clear link has been found between a baby's weight at birth and lifelong health, largely dependent on the nutrition and lifestyle of the mother during pregnancy.  Another study found that diet during our first few years is crucial in determining how healthy our hearts will be during adult life.  And a group of expert researchers has just called on all governments, starting with the critical childhood years, to take tough action on obesity, which is costing us huge amounts in healthcare bills and human lives.

The set of reports, published in the Lancet, found that the most cost-effective measures include putting traffic light labelling on food to allow consumers to quickly identify healthier choices for their families.  This is something I fought hard for during the negotiations on new Europe-wide food labelling rules.  Unfortunately the power and wealth of the food industry managed to convince Europe's right wing MEPs and governments to vote against my proposals.  However I did manage to stop my opponents from banning the use of voluntary traffic light systems which many British retailers already have in place, and was also successful in getting a commitment on tough new measures for transfats, which are a major cause of heart disease.

Another recommendation of the Lancet reports was a tax on junk food.  Such measures are already in place in some EU countries, with Denmark boasting the most progressive legislation.  This is definitely something we should consider in the UKThe revenue from taxing things with high sugar or saturated fat content could be used to subsidise healthier options such as fresh fruit and vegetables, and make it easier for everyone to provide themselves and their families with decent food.

We all want our children to have the best possible start in life, and a nutritious diet and physical activity is key to that.  I will be putting pressure on the British Government and on the UN summit on health this September, as well as continuing to try and improve European legislation to make sure our policies are designed with our children's futures in mind.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Increasing research into rare forms of cancer

Cancer is a devastating disease and one that, sadly, almost everyone has had first hand experience of.  The experience of being diagnosed and treated for cancer is extremely difficult, and can be even more terrifying if you are diagnosed with a rare cancer.  Of the 280 types of cancer around 250 are rare forms of the disease, which doctors often know little about.  This makes diagnosis and treatment so much harder.  Of all the people affected by cancer, up to a third will have a rare cancer.

Because each type of these rare forms of the disease only affects a relatively small amount of people it can be difficult, if not impossible, to try out new drugs or therapies on patients in one country alone.  Therefore it is vital that we can easily conduct cross-border clinical trials for treatments of rare cancers.  There is already an EU directive in place that should mean that clinical trials meet the same standards and follow the same procedure no matter which member state they are carried out in.  However EU governments have implemented the directive in different ways which makes the system confusing and cross-border trials difficult to organise.  Also the amount of administration and the costs involved in clinical trials means that less and less are being carried out, especially on drugs that only treat rare types of cancer.

That's why the European Parliament will be revising the legislation next year.  To prepare for this I organised the Parliament's official Health Working Group, which I co-chair, to focus on rare cancers.  I invited two inspirational young men, Peter from Sheffield who is now 25, and Sam from Newark in my constituency who is just 14, to speak at the event.  Both Peter and Sam have survived rare forms of cancer, but were subject to mis-diagnosis and experimentation with drugs and therapies because too little was known about the types of tumours that they had.  The problem is especially bad for children, as trials are not often carried out specifically on children, and instead they are given adult drugs based on pure guess work.  We need to make sure that it is easier to carry out trials for new treatments of rare cancers, and childhood cancers in particular.

At the event Peter showed a moving video from the website he now works for,, which is a forum for young cancer sufferers to share their experiences creatively.  The full version of this touching video telling the story of Alice, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer aged 15, can be seen here:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Greenest government ever?

This week we faced a huge disappointment in the European Parliament when MEPs rejected plans to commit to more ambitious reductions in CO2. Labour MEPs were fully behind plans to change our target from reducing emissions by 30% instead of 20% by 2020, as were, supposedly, the British government. To our dismay these plans were rejected by just nine votes.

Leading scientists agree that in order to stop a global environmental crisis we need to reduce our emissions by somewhere between 25-40% from 1990 levels. In order to do this Europe needs to be a world leader in driving down emissions, and the Tory-led coalition has pledged to be the greenest government ever. Strange then that it was the vote of 16 Conservative MEPs that stopped our plans to increase the target to 30%. Had they voted with us, and with their government, we would have won the vote.

David Cameron claims to be green, but this vote has shown the hollowness of his party's commitments on environmental policy. As global warming is a problem without borders, most of our environmental policies are made at a European level. The Tories have taken the pressure to act off the European Commission and EU countries, leaving the government's claim to be winning the argument on EU emissions in tatters. It looks like Cameron's commitment to lead the "greenest government ever" can be added to a long list of broken promises.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Crackdown on mobile surfing charges

There was good news this week that the European Commission is planning to take further action to drive down the cost of using mobile phones.

They’ve made a number of proposals to cut the cost of using mobile phones while abroad in another EU country, including introducing new price caps for using a mobile to access data, such as accessing emails or the internet.

This will be welcome whether you’re in Barcelona on business, on holiday in Helsinki or just travelling through Turin. We’re all still being charged too much for using our phones when abroad.

Already action has been taken to bring down the cost of making calls and sending texts while in another EU country, but with people increasingly using their smart phones to access the internet and online services, it’s high time we addressed this area of activity. It’s clear that many mobile operators are ripping-off off consumers with hugely inflated charges.

Of course the devil will be in the detail and we’ve yet to see the precise proposals from the Commission. These will need to be agreed by the European Parliament and EU governments before they come into force.

And we will need to watch that mobile phone operators don’t try to use these new proposals as an excuse to drive up prices for other services. After all, they have known for some time that if they did not act to end these unfairly high charges then the EU would act to protect consumers.

But it looks like an important step forward, and another clear sign of the tangible benefit of EU membership.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New “austerity rules” won’t do the job

Last week in the European Parliament, Labour MEPs strongly criticised new proposals for what is called economic governance; rules designed to deal with the present economic crisis, by improving coordination of economic and fiscal policy, particularly in the Eurozone.

Not the kind of stuff to get the pulses racing, I agree. But I’m more concerned about getting Europe’s pulse, if not racing, then at least beating a little more strongly.

There is no doubt we need a new approach, unfortunately the new “austerity” rules will not do the job.

Proposed by an over-cautious European Commission, and supported by governments dominated by conservatives, and the right wing in the European Parliament, the plans are based on short-term thinking, with an emphasis on severely cutting deficits, without building in long term growth. They are the “austerity” answer, and will be imposed across the EU, removing the flexibility for national governments to respond with different policies in the future.

That is why Labour and other progressive forces are arguing for something different.

Quite simply, you can't cut a country's debt without making sure that policies are in place to make sure its economy is growing at the same time. In fact, sustainable long-term growth can actually keep national debts falling as a proportion of GDP, as well as being essential to providing jobs and economic well-being, while maintaining high quality public services.

Already we can see that countries following such reckless austerity policies show some of the lowest growth figures. The UK is doing this as government policy, while countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal are forced to follow such programmes as a result of conditions imposed on them from outside. An effective economic package should support rather than undermine growth.

Specifically, investment spending should be treated separately from normal government spending in any rules establishing the level of a country’s debt. Putting money into areas like scientific research, essential infrastructure and the new green economy is essential if we are to get our economies moving again. We should not have to cut these back to meet short term targets. Indeed, cutting such spending in times of recession would actually worsen economic performance.

And the proposed new rules must be fair. It is a cruel joke to say, along David Cameron lines, that we are all in this together, when palpably some of us are “in it” more than others! The austerity measures are already hurting low and middle income people the most and it seems unlikely that any new measures will be any better. Meanwhile, the financial sector, the guilty party in this economic catastrophe, is already back to making huge profits, having been bailed out by the taxpayers of Europe.

In short, if we’re going to have new rules limiting spending, we also need new rules on fairer taxes, such as the bank bonus tax applied by the Labour government in 2010. And other innovative measures, already agreed by the European Parliament, including a financial transaction tax, will need to be developed, if there is to be a solid and sustainable recovery.

Last week, the final votes on the various Reports dealing with these matters were postponed. But we on the progressive left are very clear. We need more effective and more equitable ways of organising our economies and the campaign to achieve these must go on.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How vegetable oil is destroying the rainforest

We all know that rainforests are some of the most important habitats in the world for a huge range of plants and animals that often can't be found elsewhere. Around a quarter of the world's oxygen is converted from carbon dioxide by plants in rainforests. These places are integral to the culture of many indigenous people, and are home to hundreds of uncontactable tribes. As one of our most precious resources we should all be doing our best to protect these forests.

However the ever increasing use of palm oil in food, cosmetics and biodiesel is posing a real threat to tropical rainforests, in South East Asia particularly. Every day huge swathes of rainforest are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. On the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the only place in the world to find Orangutans in the wild, an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch is cut down every twenty seconds.

Demand for palm oil is increasing because it is cheap, and over 70% of it is used in the food we eat, in everything from chocolate to cream cheese. Environmentally minded consumers are already aware of the damaging effects of palm oil, but, at the moment, there is no way for them to tell which products use unsustainable palm oil. That is because manufacturers can simply label palm oil as 'vegetable oil'.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have been leading on new European legislation on food labelling for all Democratic Socialist MEPs. One of my big campaigns was to have all vegetable oils properly labelled, so consumers can see whether products contain palm oil or not. I was delighted that the European Parliament voted for my amendments, but I had a long hard battle with EU governments who argued the industry line that this labelling would be too difficult.

However this morning representatives of the 27 EU countries agreed to the compromise package including my amendments on vegetable oil. Once this legislation comes into force consumers will be able to put pressure on manufacturers using palm oil to get it from a sustainable source.  In the meantime consumers can choose products which already use certified sustainable palm oil.