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.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Public service at its best

On Friday I saw public service at its very best. I was in Leicester to see how the city coped with newly arrived communities from across the globe, and in particular the Roma community, some of the most recent arrivals.

Like many conurbations, Leicester has dealt with migration from all parts of the world for decades. Since 1945, this city of just over 300,000 people has seen new arrivals from Poland, Ireland, the Caribbean, East Africa, the Indian sub-continent. More recently we have seen asylum seekers and refugees from Somalia and other parts of the world, as well as internal EU migration from Poland and other Eastern European countries, which has included the Roma.

In Leicester, diversity is seen as a strength, yet it is also complex, and ever changing. Each new community poses its own challenges, and a wide range of services, almost entirely in the public sector, are key to ensuring – not just a welcome – but that community cohesion is maintained and enhanced.

On Friday, along with newly elected Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby, I met council officers working in policy, in welfare, in young people’s services, in housing. I saw police officers, health workers and teachers. I talked to community representatives and members of the Leicester Council of Faiths.

The professional expertise was impressive, with a clear commitment to maintaining community cohesion and building relationships between the new arrivals and those who have been here for some time. Above all, I saw people committed to making things work, to make our city a better place for all communities.

In the afternoon. a visit to Babington College gave me a glimpse of what it’s like at the sharp end for one community – the Roma – and for those who work with them.

There is an estimated 1000-1500 members of the Roma community now living in Leicester. They are mostly from Slovakia as well as some from the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria, and as EU citizens are legal migrants. They have a long history of persecution, social exclusion and deprivation, and this experience of officialdom, their lack of a history of education and associated factors have made integration a real issue.

Of the 400 or so Roma children in Leicester schools, many of the secondary age group are at Babington College. It was there that I talked to Roma children, to their teachers and to their parents. There was an invigorating display of Roma dance and music.

It was an exhilarating afternoon. Not just because of the liveliness, and obvious delight shown by the Roma children in their surroundings, but also because it was a testament to the hard work and commitment of the teachers there. They were going the extra mile for these children, not for financial reward but because they thought it was right.

Babington is just one school in Leicester. Leicester is just one city in the Region. Neither are unique, though I think both have things to teach us. Above all, I wish that the British media, so adept at knocking public servants, could have seen what I saw last week.

Friday, June 17, 2011

New Rights for Victims Proposed

A couple of weeks ago, new European measures to help people who fall victim to crime abroad were proposed. With more and more Brits travelling to other European countries for holidays, long weekends and business trips, it is really important that if you fall victim to a crime whilst out of the country you get adequate support and protection.

For many people who become victims of crime, their dream holiday can turn into a nightmare. According to Eurostat, around 30 million crimes against persons or property are committed every year in the EU, with many more going unreported.

One of these 30 million victims is Robbie Hughes, who was violently attacked in Crete in 2008. Robbie sustained life-threatening injuries and while his mother Maggie tirelessly helped to support him whilst he was still in hospital in Greece, she found there was no real help, support or advice for victims of serious injuries. As a result of the ordeal, Maggie started a campaign "Please Enjoy- Don't Destroy", in order to help give support and advice to families who find themselves in similar situations. Her campaign, supported by the GMB union, has been very influential in helping bring these proposals about, so much so that she was invited to attend the launch of the new rights package in Brussels.

The new proposals, outlined by European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding, include minimum standards on the rights, support and protection victims of crime receive. There are special provisions to protect vulnerable victims, such as children, victims of rape and people with disabilities.

The proposals also mean that victims of violence who benefit from restraining orders in their home country can have the same protection measures in place when they move or travel to another EU country.

This is another good example of how the EU can work together to solve cross border problems. People can fall victim to crime anywhere, and we should be able to expect, in the EU at least, to be able to receive help when we most need it. I look forward to the measures coming before the Parliament for scrutinising in the next couple of months.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Newborn screening could save lives

Today I chaired a meeting which highlighted a condition responsible for the deaths of a significant number of babies across Europe, yet one which can be relatively easily diagnosed and treated.

Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) is a serious Primary Immunodeficiency that can lead to a child’s death. Babies born with SCID lack white blood cells, meaning their immune system does not protect them against a wide range of viruses, bacteria and fungi.

The awful reality is that children with SCID can die before their first birthday. Yet with the correct diagnosis and treatment, they can lead normal lives.

At the moment the only country which screens for SCID at birth is the United States. Screening for SCID does not take place in EU Member States and babies are dying unnecessarily.

I am therefore calling on the European Commission to bring forward proposals on the issue of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency and the screening of new-born babies.

SCID needs to be seen as a paediatric emergency by all members of the EU, and should be on the list of diseases that babies are routinely screened for.

For many years I worked in the British National Health Service as a medical scientist which is why I'm so keen to have the sorts of discussions we had today. Let’s hope we get some action out of it and bring SCID to a full stop.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

To fight cancer we must look at both treatment and prevention

Last Saturday I took part in the Race for Life in Nottingham to raise money and awareness for Cancer Research UK. Along with 'Team Glenis' and thousands of other women we ran, walked and jogged 5km, contributing to the staggering £362 million raised to date by women taking part in Race for Life events across the country. Cancer is a disease that sadly touches all of us in one way or another, and I was proud to take part in such a positive event dedicated to fighting it.

In much of my work in the European Parliament I aim to help the fight against cancer. Last Tuesday was World No Tobacco Day, and I hosted an event in the Parliament with the Smoke Free Partnership to celebrate the achievements we have made and look to what we still need to do in the future.

Tobacco has caused a global public health crisis. Use of tobacco is the second most common cause of death globally, and accounts for 1 in 10 adult deaths worldwide. Half of all tobacco users will be killed by it, and of course the manufacturers, the tobacco industry know this. Unlike many other challenges we face in public health, every single death from tobacco is preventable.

If we're serious about preventing tobacco related diseases then we need to see that reflected in European legislation. Soon MEPs will have a chance to do that, when we start to revise the Tobacco Products Directive at the end of this year. This will be our chance to make sure that we implement the measures that are most effective at preventing people from taking up smoking, and encouraging smokers to give up, such as standardised packaging and large mandatory pictorial warnings on packs. It's also a chance to stop the use of additives which make tobacco 'smoother', reduce the dryness of cigarettes or mask unpleasant smells. It is precisely these additives which can increase the addiction and appeal of smoking.

Of course we will face heavy lobbying from the tobacco industry and other interested parties when we revise this legislation. However, if we get this legislation right it won't just be the health of individuals that benefits. We will also see reductions in public healthcare spending, as the massive strain caused by preventable respiratory diseases, cancers and cardiovascular disorders lessens. And the economy as a whole could benefit as consumers who would have spent extra cash on cigarettes start buying products from more labour intensive sectors. Tobacco related illnesses are costing the EU over 100 billion Euros a year.

In order to fight cancer we need to do more research into treatments and cures, which is why supporting the work of Cancer Research UK is so important. However, to really be effective in tackling this terrible disease we must also focus on preventing cancer in the first place, and it's time we took some real action to fight the huge numbers of preventable cancers caused by smoking.