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.