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.