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 .....