Sunday, 12 December 2010

Why I've been a bit busy

For many weeks now, I have been working on the so called “Economic Governance” package of European legislation - in simple terms this is the agreement on what countries should do in the future to try to prevent another Greek or Irish crisis - and to bring the weaker economies of Europe back on track. Of course its much more complicated.

A team of 6 MEPs from different countries and different political persuasions have been tasked by their groups to lead on the package. We have had meeting after meeting, picked the brains of experts from across the globe - there are areas where we agree but we’ve also had many debates about differences. Given the economic situation I’m not sure it helps anyone to add the extra confusion by blogging on the twists and turns of those debates.

I’m in a slightly odd position as, unlike the other groups of the European Parliament, my group is almost entirely non Euro-zone. Indeed only 2 of my 54 group colleagues use the “common” currency. The rest of us are split have into those new member states whose countries are committed to join “when ready” and the UK Conservatives who have always stood to keep the pound.

Since September I’ve sometimes felt a bit like an agony aunt. A year and a half ago MEPs from across the Eurozone would have tried to tease me that Sterling should still join the Euro - now members often come instead to seek my views. They understand that non Euro countries can not automatically underwrite euro bailouts and that if Eurozone countries want to hand more power to Brussels this needs to come with opt outs for non Eurozone.

This week I hope that our group of 6 will each put our first thoughts on the table. The rest of the parliament will then get a long period to submit their own amendments there will be public debates and final votes probably in March. Following that there should be a negotiation period with National Governments via the Council of Ministers and final legislation in June.

As of now amongst the group of 6 we will agree that transparency is vital especially decent data and statistics - Governments should not be able mislead with their numbers. Countries will be asked to provide 3 year forecasts and ensure they can get monthly cash reconciliations (the UK already does this - but many don’t).

We will agree that all countries should share and discuss their budgets annually so that they can understand the impacts of their decisions on each others affairs. We will agree that the European parliament should be involved in those discussions.

However there are points where we don’t all agree - I have suggested that the EU budget should be discussed annually at the same time but some have already suggested they will probably not agree with me.

Everyone agrees that there need to be incentives for countries who perform as well as sanctions for those that don’t - but there are long debates about whether one of the incentives should be a common government bond issuance program in the Eurozone (Even though this would only be in the Euro I worry that its expensive with moral hazard). On the sanctions side, my Eurozone colleagues are concerned about the levels and practicality of fines, and when they should be triggered.

There are still points to debate on state vs private pensions schemes and some of my colleagues want to add a European Monetary Fund to this legislation.
On top of this the feisty talk may come in the area of correcting “macro-economic imbalances”. This is economics code for either correcting credit bubbles (think Ireland) which I agree is needed - or for giving the European Commission the right to try to level out almost any economic trend regarding what makes a richer-country-poorer or poorer-country-richer.....

This has a long way to go.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

A very expensive day in Europe

Today in Strasbourg, I (and my Conservative colleagues) voted for a freeze in the EU budget because it is unacceptable for EU institutions to keep spending more taxpayers´ money when national governments are having to rein back spending at home. We voted to reduce the expenses of MEPs and to reduce the costs of Parliament. We also voted against increasing maternity pay to 20 weeks because I believe that this sort of decision should be taken by national governments not international parliaments (especially given the dire economic times).

Sadly colleagues from other countries and other groups did not agree. The Parliament voted to increase the EU budget by 5.9% (£843 million gross contribution for the UK). The vote on maternity leave was lost by just 7 votes (327 to 320)- this is predicted to add costs of £2.5 billion a year to UK businesses and government.

These are not yet final decisions as national governments will now get their say.
Lets hope some sense prevails.

A small ray of light was that MEPs did agree to at least review the pension arrangements of EU employees... but even that is going to take a while.

Is it any wonder that members of the public feel the EU is increasingly out of touch?

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Conference Season

It is not just conference season in the UK - last week I raced backwards and forwards across Brussels between debates in the Parliament (from the impact of the latest Free trade agreement on cars to the EU wanting to leverage its budget) to attend parts of Europe’s annual conference for central bankers, legislators and financial services (how do we get private sector money back investing in the economy?)

Then on Sunday I travelled to Birmingham for the first party conference of the new government. It was great to see many friends, many now sporting the letters MP after their name - many others starting with a range of new and exciting opportunities. I was armed with a back to back diary of meetings mostly with businesses and a long list of upcoming legislation that I predicted would be raised - copious notes later I returned to Brussels on Wednesday with an even longer list.

On Wednesday night we debated how the new international “Basel” rules for banks would be implemented in Europe - across the continent many MEPs were asking for local exemptions. I’m not at all convinced this will help restore confidence in banks or markets.

On Thursday meetings, votes then back home. Friday though was glorious. Norfolk day.

Starting at Anglia Farmers - a buying co-operative for over 2,000 farms that orders over one million litres of bulk fuel each week and handles 10,000 mobile phone accounts. Clarke Willis was a fount of knowledge on the rural economy, energy needs, commodities markets etc etc. The "trading floor" would not look out of place in the City but in fact is on a farm site near Norwich - I heard how they were checking each farmer's Vodaphone bill item by item - apparently you should be too at the moment!

Then a tour of Colman’s mustard - on the same factory site in Norwich since 1854, but full of new ideas, more efficient modern production techniques run side by side with the traditional ones. I had never thought about the complexity of running a single facility that produces over 200 different products. There is a huge family spirit and staff loyalty is every bit as fearsome as the mustard.


Lunch was spent catching up with councillors re Broadband - they are going places and hope to soon start connecting up rural villages via a WiFi system linked to the village schools’ fibre connections.

Last stop was to meet one of the county’s larger egg farmers - from the end of 2012 keeping hens in battery cages will be illegal in the EU. After significant investment the UK is more than ready to comply - others must do too.

On Monday I will attend a conference of Manufacturing Engineers in East Anglia - yes it is the conference season.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Is the UK's voice getting stronger?

The car in this photo drives itself - well not quite but it is really cool, hence my laughter. A bit of clever electronics and software stored on a mobile phone had adapted the cruise control. I drove along a twisty country road and through roundabouts in town without touching the brake or accelerator. All I needed to do was steer and over-ride if other cars appeared. The inventors from Ricardo in Cambridge are now working on a project that will allow you to totally hand over the controls of your car to a driver in front. Letting them negotiate the M25 traffic jam for you whilst you check emails or watch a movie. Very cool and fuel efficient too.

Ricardo had asked me to come and hear their experience with research projects funded by the EU. They had some specific suggestions - a less complex process for managing foreign exchange issues (currently they need to reconcile exchange rates daily), for the EU to be able to pay grants directly to junior partners rather than having all money funneled through the lead (with resulting business risk) and for a web based “dating” service to help find research partners.

Last week I went into a negotiation armed with a list of changes I would like to see. I walked out of the meeting with a tick beside every point. A year ago I found it incredibly difficult to get a UK voice heard on anything - in that meeting I found I was at least listened to on everything. Thank you to everyone who has answered my call for advice on the EU research program - PLEASE KEEP THEM COMING. I’m not a researcher/scientist/engineer/innovator but if you are and have experiences or good suggestions then I can at least try get them aired.

OK the arguments we are having on financial services and economic reforms are a LOT more complicated - but even there the attitude towards the UK’s point of view is markedly more friendly than a year ago.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Feedback wanted on Research and Development

It is a little known fact that there are more universities, businesses and other organisations participating in European programs for research and development from the UK than from any other country.
It is also a vast amount of public money – the EU budget for Framework 7 which runs from 2007 to 2013 is €51 billion. Indeed, the amount of money spent in the UK on R&D from EU budgets is roughly equal to the entire amount of support given domestically through R&D tax credits.
The European system of Framework Grants has a reputation for being the most bureaucratic and complex system in the world. Nevertheless, supporting research and development is vital for innovation and fundamental to future economic growth.
In light of this I have volunteered to be one of a small group of MEPs, and the only UK member, on a working group looking at simplification of framework grants and future strategy.
I would be interested the experiences and opinions of readers who have been involved in Framework funding projects in the past. Please email comments to office@vickyford.org.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

What is wrong with a GM potato?

It's been just a bit busy recently in Brussels ... and there are a back log of more complex questions I would like to ask the blogging community - but please tell me just what is wrong with the GM potato trial I saw near Norwich earlier this month....

A wild South American blight resistant mini potato has been crossed into a common supermarket "Desire".

1. Potato blight devastates crops - think back on Irish history

2. Farmers have to spray fields with chemicals up to 15 times a season to cope with potato blight.

3. Potatoes are grown from tubers i.e. from last season's potatoes ... not from seed. Bees are not interested in potato flowers so the risk of cross pollination to "traditional" crops is negligible.

4. This scientific trial is not funded by a large industrial oligopoly but, as far as I can see by scientists and philanthropists genuinely interested in how we meet the food needs of the world's growing population

5. This particular trial is not a fly by night experiment - its taken years of science to get to the planting trial stage - but still many more years before deciding if this is scientifically acceptable, let alone a marketable crop.

It is time that an intelligent crop-by-crop approach is taken to the issue of GM foods. Those with a longer history tell me that the EU has sat on the fence regarding individual GM crops for 15 years. This week the European Authorities slowing began to agree that decisions on individual crops should be taken by National Governments and not at an EU level.

So for the record I would eat this potato....

Thursday, 20 May 2010

First Strasbourg of a new era

The volcanic ash has added a new frisson of excitement to an MEP’s life. As I left home on Monday morning it was not at all clear which of my colleagues would make it – and I found myself chucking a few extra items of underwear into the suitcase in case I got stranded.

Of course this was also the first voting session of the European Parliament with a Conservative and Liberal government back at home. In the European Parliament we sit with different groups and there are differences of approach but in my first year as an MEP I have found many “market” Liberal MEPs on the Continent whose views on business and energy issues are similar to those of my own.

Monday was spent navigating my way across Europe’s train network so I arrived in the Parliament early evening to speak in a debate on Energy in Buildings – here I have worked closely with Fiona Hall MEP and leader of the UK Liberal delegation on legislation we hope will help save some of the 40% of Europe's energy that is used in homes and other buildings. Exporting good practice from the UK across the rest of the EU should be encouraged.

At 9pm we started the late night vote on the now infamous Alternative Investment Fund Management Directive – 4 of the 5 “liberals” from across Europe joined the Conservatives in voting against the legislation, united in our concerns that a protectionist approach could hurt pension funds and other investors.

On Tuesday I raced around Parliament helping to gather signatures for a motion to prevent the increase in MEPs staffing allowances – Greens and Conservatives joined forces here – sadly for the tax-payer we lost the final vote.

On Wednesday all UK MEPs (bar 2) voted to try to reduce the number of weeks we spend in Strasbourg (quite the biggest symbolic waste of tax payers money)– again we lost but it was closer than ever before and inspired us to try and try again.

By Thursday it was time to win some votes. A controversial paper on “Long Term Sustainability of Public Financing” had initially been drafted by a socialist economist – needless to say it was rather long on the ”spend, spend” theory of economics. Through the process of MEPs amendments and close
votes involving the EPP (Centre right)/ ECR (Our group) versus Socialists/Communists/Greens the document had been significantly redrafted in committee to more of a “lets the repay some debt, get sustainable budgets, focus investment on growth” theory of economics. As we raced into the deadline of the final full parliament votes today the EPP agreed to help vote down most of the clauses that we disliked and ECR/EPP/Liberals together defeated some last minute amendments from the Socialist side. And when it came to the final vote, on balance, I felt we had a paper that was not 100% perfect but worth supporting so I raised my thumb upwards and signalled to my colleagues to vote for the motion. It was passed by the narrowest of votes with the UK Conservatives making the difference – as a result we now have a paper passed by the European Parliament that emphasises need to restore fiscal restraint.

The week has also included two lengthy “Trialogs” i.e. the critical negotiation sessions to try to reconcile views between parliament, representatives of national governments in the Council of Ministers and the European Commission. It was our final trialog session on the Prospectus Directive – as a result it should now be cheaper and less bureaucratic for companies (especially smaller companies) to raise equity; a pleasing result and led from the Parliaments side by a German Liberal.

The other trialog sessions on the “supervisory architecture” for cross-boarder financial institutions are just getting started - these cover 7 different directives and promise long hours of meetings over the coming months.

I had a long chat with the Federation of Small Businesses on how to help them campaign against the working time direct,ive for self employed Truck Drivers (a ludicrous suggestion as they already have time limiters in their trucks). After most had packed up work for the day I had dinner with a group of US Banks and coffee with representatives of UK banks – important as we need to make sure that new rules for banks in Europe are, if possible, in line with other markets – we will be voting on some of these crucial and complex reforms within the next few weeks.

I spoke in 3 debates in the main chamber and attended a seminar on Research and Innovation – how to share Scientific discoveries better across Europe and globally? A key note speaker was Giscard D’Estaing who seemed to take great pleasure in telling the audience that Europe’s current woes were due to the Eurosceptic Brits – I couldn’t resist chipping in that on the subject of the conference British inventors are most pro-Europe and indeed there are more universities or businesses involved in EU cross-border collaborative research programs than from any other country.

It is time that some continental colleagues thought a bit more about the subtlety of the UK’s views on Europe.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Reasons to be Happy

It has been wonderful to see David Cameron in Number 10 and so firmly getting down to business today - actually some of us didn't wait for last night's agreement. The European Parliament was of course continuing full steam ahead on a vast wave of financial services legislation that is coming through Europe.

Eve of Poll last Wednesday when I returned from talking to undecided voters in Thurrock we were up till the early hours working through the latest drafts of financial services legislation. Whilst it would have been nice to grab some sleep after a long and successful election day in Ipswich, on Friday we were looking at yet more proposed re-drafting from other countries MEPS and on Monday it was back to Brussels to vote (Suffice to say I didn't agree with quite all of the proposed text). The following days and weeks will include some crucial negotiations between European Countries on financial services reform - and less than 24 hours after DC set off to meet the Queen there is a UK government team pouring over the nitty gritty details at the highest levels. Well done.

I am very pleased to see so many friends arriving in Westminster - 17 new Conservative MPs from the East of England. They are a highly talented bunch - both men and women. Some have suggested that it would be nice to see more women in the cabinet now... I'm relaxed. Let the newly elected MPs get their feet under their desks and there will be lots of new talent for cabinet posts in years to come.

I am sorry to see some great candidates that were not elected. They worked so hard and would have been great MPs. With 52 of the 58 seats in the East of England now Conservative held it is a small number - but I can not thank them enough for their hard work and friendship.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

5 more days to change our politics

Westminster MPs may live in a bubble but the Brussels bubble can be even more isolated. It has been great to be back on doorsteps, in shopping centres and markets talking to voters and hearing their concerns. I've spent the past couple of days manning a call centre talking to hundreds of undecided voters. There were some who just didn't want to talk but a some who really, really do. People know that their vote this time is very important. The longer conversations were with public sector workers who know that changes need to be made and some had great suggestions.

I have to get back to Brussels for key meetings on financial services reform tomorrow (Monday) and Tuesday. The rest of the world doesn't stop for our election and it vital that the UK voice is still heard... its a bank holiday here so the UK trains have a reduced timetable... looks like the alarm is set for 5am.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Dusty thinking from the European Parliament in Strasbourg

All day yesterday, Sunday, my blackberry was silently vibrating as email after email arrived from MEP colleagues stuck under the Volcanic Ash cloud begging for this weeks Strasbourg meeting to be cancelled. It was very clear that even if the parliament did meet this week MEPs from further flung parts of the EU would simply not be able to be present. Other MEPs begged that the monthly migration to Strasbourg could be evacuated back to Brussels.

No answer back. The issue of Strasbourg is just too sensitive to the French, Germans and some other central Europeans, admitting the need to re-schedule is to them a loss of face too far.

There was a moment of no return when I boarded the Eurostar this morning. I knew that many of my UK colleagues were grounded as the train seats out were fully booked by last Friday - I was also told that all trains back were fully booked until this Thursday. In my diary in addition to the normal Strasbourg votes I had 4 meetings about key pieces of up-coming legislation that affect the UK more than most. However I was not prepared to risk leaving UK without a voice.

As the train raced through France the email traffic continued 3 of my 4 meetings have been cancelled. The queues at both Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est were horrendous. It is clear that even in the centre of mainland Europe travelling is causing huge trauma.

Arriving in Strasbourg the powers-that-be have decided that it would be undemocratic for the Parliament to vote as this would exclude members from further countries. However they have decided that debates must continue. I thought democracy was as much about the right to free speech as the right to vote. Having admitted that it would be wrong to vote when various countries are unrepresented why is it acceptable to have debates when they can not make their opinions heard
? Is this suggesting that the debates don't count?

The volcanic ash cloud is forcing many to re-think their reliance on travel and transportation. It is causing real pain to people and businesses. We politicians are constantly asking those we represent to save energy and think twice before making un-necessary journeys. Please let's get rid of these un-necessary journeys to Strasbourg.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

And They're Off

As Mr Brown was travelling up the Mall to call the election today I was back on the Eurostar to Brussels. Since Tony Blair announced his intention to stand down as PM immediately after the 2005 election my country has been without a committed, elected leader at the helm and finally five years on they have a choice.

So what does an MEP do during a national general election campaign? MEPs from different countries and different groups give different answers - even from our own country and my own group there are different answers. Here is mine.

1. I want a change of government in the UK for the benefit of the UK.

2. I want to see a large number of the excellent candidates across the East of England elected to parliament. Over recent years I have made good friends with many of them, seen their highs and lows as they juggle work, politics, community and family. I know that the amongst the new generation of MPs in waiting there are some true stars. Fighting an election is great fun but can also be lonely and brutal - I want to help them and their teams.

3. BUT .... we also can't afford to drop the ball with the European legislative agenda. This afternoon and evening I prepared a voting list for over 100 different votes that my colleagues will face tomorrow. This takes some time - and was on amendments just one report - to do with Energy savings. When a document is negotiated via hundreds of amendments and babel-fished through 22 languages it often becomes totally intelligible. The working language is English and being present in the re-drafting meetings and adding the native English speaking voice makes a difference.

4. However .... I also want to a change in the UK government for the wider world. I'm fed up with the recent trend of the UK blaming "global" issues for our own troubles - perhaps I'm arrogant - but the UK I'm proud of is the UK that used to help to solve global issues. There is not a great deal of point of me fighting in the European Parliament if our battle-grounds are not even inspected by the Council of Ministers where our National Parliaments are represented. Each piece of EU legislation requires approval by both Parliament and the Council. Over recent months there has been a steady stream of Conservative MPs through Brussels - working with their MEP colleagues to make sure they are ready and briefed to take up their council seats on every bit of EU legislation. They are thinking positive and ready for the challenge.

THEREFORE ... over the next few weeks I will be back in the UK as much as possible and keeping up with the day job in Brussels. Over the Easter Weekend I spoke to many friends from different jobs, backgrounds and financial circumstances who are going to try to find the extra hours to help out in the election over the coming weeks. Join them - I will be.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Who wears the trousers?

I enjoyed reading the Con-Home article this afternoon on whether not jeans are appropriate attire in a Council meeting. I recently spotted the normally most elegant Rachinda Dati MEP from the EPP wearing jeans (expensive looking ones) in the European Parliament but she was so surrounded by her usual entourage of TV cameras that I didn’t butt in – Ms Dati has a bit of a reputation for wearing Sarkos trousers when test driving his ideas in the European Parliament.

A few days later another French MEP Sylvie Goulard from the "Liberals" was again wearing jeans in a meeting. Sylvie is normally much more eloquent in both words and dress. Quietly, I lent over the rank of desks between us and told her that on this occasion I not only disapproved of her words but also her attire. By the time we had returned for the afternoon session the jeans had gone. I know my place and would never even think about “Out -Styling” a Parisian but after months of listening to Ms Goulard lecture the room on what is wrong with the UK, I did chuckle.

The past couple of weeks have been very intense in the Ford office with five of the pieces of legislation we are looking at all arriving at a climax at the same time. Those who are familiar with Westminster are often surprised with the level of detail that MEPs needs to get to grips with in any particular directive or report. As a committee member I can table amendments on each of the documents my committee is looking at (the Economic and Monetary affairs committee is scheduled to look at over 50 documents this year). After everyone has thrown in their cards most documents have over 100 amendments – some many more – there then follows a lengthy process behind the scenes of negotiating compromises and intricate complex voting lists winding through each amendment. Given that we rely on the babel-fish translation between 22 different languages and across 27 different countries it should be no surprise that most times the ending legislation is, at best, clunky.


The glass is sometimes half full though – where there are no combatants for trouser wearing and genuine sharing of interests. I have enjoyed working on a directive on dodgy drugs. The increase in counterfeit medicines from Internet Viagra sales to now hospital cancer drugs is potentially terrifying and its been good to work across country, across party and across the industry to try to find solutions – this needs the sort of international procedures that is why we went into common market in the first place. I’ve met pharma companies, pharmacists and doctors and I hope that new bar-coding procedures across Europe may save lives without making everyday asprin more expensive.

Sometimes the negotiations are trickier. Various MEPs from across the continent have been calling for “more powers to Europe” i.e. Megga trouser wearing in Brussels taking control of financial services. The UK is many miles from perfect but it is rather ironic that MEPs from the same countries suddenly tabled delaying amendments to new banking rules. Thus realising that perhaps there were more skeletons outside the UK’s closets than those within.

This has a long way to run – but it’s been good to have a few days back at home.

Today in Castlepoint, Basildon and Watford meeting voters and hearing their concerns over taxation, services and our national debt. Its very clear that on the Streets here there is not a lot of support for Gordon Brown continuing to wear the trousers in Downing Street.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Action packed week in Strasbourg

This week was a bit of a busy one in Strasbourg. Despite years of lobbying by MEPs to stop the second seat, the Parliament still meets there approximately once a month in Strasbourg. This is the main time MEPS join together a debating chamber – speaking time is strictly limited and MEPs have to bid for the opportunity to speak.

Leaving home early on Monday morning I finally go to the office at about 5pm - time to start the working day with a debate on financial taxes. I dont like the idea of new taxes being implemented at a European level. There is a drive by some MEPs to use the financial crisis as an excuse to pass significant more power from the UK and other countries to the EU. I have no problem with asking banks to pay back the taxpayers for their bailouts – as a globally co-ordinated move. But, the idea that the EU could start to extract its own taxes potentially on every UK citizen’s pension fund, saving or investment is not acceptable. It is has always been sacrosanct that taxation is a national government decision and not subject to far removed decision makers in Brussels or Strasbourg.

Tuesday was mostly group meetings and votes, but on Wednesday it was back to the main chamber where I joined Conservative MEPs Roger Helmer, Dan Hannan and Robert Atkins in a series of questions to the President of the European Council; the Presidency rotates every 6 months and is currently held by the Spanish. We all spoke out for UK citizens who have moved to Spain and found their dreams and livelihoods shattered when changes in planning laws have caused their homes to be bulldozed. The procedures of the European Parliament are quite formal so it is sometimes difficult to get an issue a proper hearing. Whilst the Presidency is not strictly speaking meant to answer on domestic Spanish issues, some of us felt that this has been going on too long and just too far – people have lost their homes and their life savings, by asking a series of questions we certainly put the Spanish representatives on the spot. They got a clear message that UK MEPS are not prepared to let this issue fester out of the spotlight.

On Thursday morning was a debate about investing in Low Carbon technologies. I'm all for new ideas for energy saving and diversification of energy for security reasons. But EU funds are taxpayers funds, the East of England already has experience with using EU funds for investment and research. Companies and Universities across the East of England around Cambridge and elsewhere are often worldwide leaders in research. The EU has a phenomenal 50 billion euro budget for research. Some good projects have come out of the joint work that is done with other European countries and part funded from EU budgets. But there are also some very serious issues with bureaucracy, complexitiy (especially for smaller companies), inflexibility at adapting to new developments in science and some terrible stories about late payments from the EU to struggling businesses. Before the EU embarks on a new strategy for spending taxpayers money they could do with learning the lessons of the past.

Away from the main chamber, the email traffic was fluttering with MEPs offering to sign a letter to stop the “Strasbourg circus” (good idea). In a debate on financial services and specifically financial derivatives I was able to refer to my visit last week Thomson Holiday’s head quarters in Luton. They are the UK and Europe’s leading holiday company which organises holidays for over 30 million people every year. They, like many other companies, need to manage foreign exchange and fluctuating commodity costs like airline fuel – other MEPs need to understand that new EU regulations on derivatives must make sure that it becomes impractical for companies to hedge their risks. The costs would be borne by the customers, whether on their holiday or at home.

Friday was back in the constituency and catching up with three of the Conservative coastal candidates for the General Election. With Therese Coffey in Suffolk Coastal I saw the work that needs to be done to repair the harbour wall in Southwold. They are about £2million short of the money they need to make repairs and build a new dockside for tourism. Its frustrating that when you see so much money wasted capital projects like this struggle.

In Lowestoft, Peter Aldous had arranged for me to meet an impressively energetic crew from the combined local councils who have been making sure our East Anglian ports have all the facilities, land and expertise lined up to take part in the massive building of offshore wind turbines that will start in coming years. The next project of 1000 turbines off the Norfolk/ Suffolk coast produce 5 times the amount of energy of Sizewell Nuclear power station. This is big business and potential for big jobs in an area that needs them. I have been asked to write to a select group of companies in the supply chain and encourage them to take a look at locating services and production in our East Anglian ports. My pen and writing paper are going to be busy.

Then to Great Yarmouth where Bradon Lewis took me to meet a local award winning butcher. Don't forget that Norfolk/ Suffolk and Cambridgeshire farmers provide 2/3 of the pork and potatos in the UK. I'm working with the NFU to host a bangers and mash lunch in the Parliament next month to remind others of the extraordinarly high standards our farmers are capable of. The butcher was impressed, we had a long chat about various bits of EU legislation that have been threatened. I left having done the weekend food shopping.

Back to Brussels next week .....

Friday, 5 February 2010

Chocolate computers

There are loads of downsides with the way MEP constituencies work in the UK - the patches are huge, proportional representation depersonalises the relation ship with voters - BUT the great thing about representing an area like the East of England is that I am continually finding out more of the great things that happen in this part of the UK.

Some recent photos...
Tasting the next generation Magnum at Unilever's research facility near Bedford... like Willy Wonka's factory but for Ice Cream... and much more. Issues - why EU is so much slower at approving new products than practically every other major economic area, pros and cons of EU research funding.
Joining a boat trip in Cambridge to hear about work to be done to clean up our rivers and water. Experts included water companies, the environment agency, fishermen, farmers and foresters. Issues - the Water Framework Directive, invasive species, pollutants, CAP funding for environmental programs.

Opening an IT suite at a small rural school in Norfolk. Rural broadband is a big concern in Norfolk. I am hoping to host a workshop bringing together industry, user groups and local government at the end of the month. Issues - the benefits of broadband access for isolated communities. How to share best practive.
Visiting the Vauxhall van factory in Luton. This is one of the most efficient factories that General Motors own and I was impressed by the commitment of workers to continual improvements. Issues - providing a level playing field for UK businesses and state aid rules, upcoming legislation for reducing CO2 in van emissions and why this is different to the car market.

Also in Luton Nigel Huddleston took me to the Dallow Community Centre in one of the most deprived parts of town. Here an incredible group of volunteers took on the task of building and setting up a community facility that is now used by over 50,000 people each year. I arrived on Friday - after the Muslim community's weekly prayers but before the Friday evening gospel choir and Saturday hockey games. Even our most diverse, deprived communities can be very vibrant.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Horse trading


No wonder those outside the Brussels/Strasbourg bubble find EU legislation so confusing. This week has kicked off some horse trading that even the fastest tic-tac bookie would struggle to keep up with.

Firstly the debate on the EU commissioners has continued. The 25 men and women who have been nominated by their countries to become supreme commanders of the EU Commission have now been cross examined at length by the various committees of the Parliament. In principal this is meant to be a transparent public process whereby MEPs decide whether they think the nominees.

In practice this has been wheeler dealing behind closed doors. In the corridors and coffee bars MEPs have exchanged stories about what they have witnessed. Some nominees are no doubt able, one (Jeleva) was so woeful that she has already resigned not only as a commissioner designate but also as Bulgaria’s foreign minister. At best, among the others there are some square pegs in round holes. Suffice to say that the main federalist parties don’t want to criticise the EU publicly and it looks as if all the secret exchanges of letters will result in a stitch up deal that means the rest of these Commissioners get rubber stamped through. MEPs like me will only get a vote on the whole bunch – not individuals – very transparent NOT.

Today is also the final deadline for submitting amendments on the latest EU directive on financial services – the “Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive”. Those who follow Westminster style systems are totally flummoxed when I explain how MEPs can totally re-write a piece of legislation by amendments. So far I counted well over 500 amendments that have been tabled and I haven’t even spoken to half the committee. My Conservative colleagues have submitted over 100 and have been working on alliances with other parties on theirs. This directive, which was meant to target systemic risks building up in hedge funds, must be significantly redrafted or it could also be very damaging to innovative companies, pensions and investment in developing countries. Whilst I hope that we will be able to negotiate a workable solution - I have just tabled one amendment - calling for a full review after 2 years. So hopefully this at least gives us an insurance policy if the whole thing ends up as a disaster.

Photos from recent trips across the region would also be attached – if I hadn’t left the leads for my camera in the UK so here is just one of when I went to visit the local Ambulance service during the snow-season – I learnt even they need my help to fight back against other poorly crafted pieces of legislation, I can feel some more amendments coming.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Back to School for the European Parliament

Today is only day two of the start of the New Year in the European Parliament but it has started with a bang. The questioning of new EU commissioners and subsequent debate is already going on long into the evenings.

The mood of European MEPs seems to have changed over the holiday and many continental MEPs appear much more concerned about the state of public finances than they were before Christmas. This should be a good thing as debate over tax-tax vs. spend-spend that has already started back at home in the UK is now being faced up to by some of our Continental colleagues.

I have now listened to the grillings being given to three of the potential commissioners - those for Economic Affairs, Fraud/Tax and just now Competition. There are grumblings in corridors that various Commissioner Candidates appear to be avoiding answering the questions, or ill briefed - plus ca change. The proposed Competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia has at least tried to give more detailed and informed answers even though he is a Socialist so I don't necessarily agree with all his answers! A classic moment was when one of the tri-lingual French MEPs pointed out that one of the candidates described his priority as "Growth" when speaking English, "Employment" when speaking French and then in German this became the "Social Market"... I must add paying closer attention to translations to my list of New Years Resolutions.