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.