Thursday, 20 January 2011

Weekly Brief - from Strasbourg this time

Well there was a bit of interest from last weeks email to local journalists telling them what I´m up to so. Mostly on fish - I´ve been asked to be a "sofa guest" on Radio Suffolk. Sounds interesting ... I wonder if its a real sofa? Therefore I am continuing with my new years resolution to send a weekly brief for at least one more week.

Here is the message that is going out this week.

This week the European Parliament moved to Strasbourg for its monthly Plenary session. This is the time when the Parliament meets as a whole to debate and vote on proposals that have been submitted from the Parliaments numerous committees.

For many years UK Conservative MEPS have voiced their discontent with the "two seat" parliament pointing to the waste of time and tax-payers money. The UK Coalition government is also opposed to this . However resolving the situation does not lie in the hands of the European Parliament but requires a unanimous agreement across National Parliaments in all 27 EU Countries.

The main piece of new legislation voted on this week was a directive on cross border healthcare. From 2013 this will allow UK patients the option of seeking treatment for planned procedures (such as planned operations) in other EU countries, provided they have the prior approval of the NHS to meet the costs (usually from their home GP and specialist. It will also mean that the NHS will not need to treat patients from other EU countries for such planned treatments unless there is prior agreement from the patients home health service to repay the NHS.

"I hope that this new directive will clarify the position both for patients and for medical professionals, give patients more choice and protect NHS budgets."

In the Parliament´s question time hour Vicky quizzed the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, regarding cutting red tape on EU funding for Scientific Research. Vicky reminded President Barosso that research and innovation is critical to maintaining a competitive economy and that for the first time a university in Europe topped the global league tables for Scientific Research - Cambridge University. She said that European funding for research also supported research in many less well known universities as well as businesses large and small. However she is concerned that plans to unlock bureaucracy may be stalled.

"The EU budget for Research is huge - over E50 billion for the 2007-2013 period. This is a very significant source of funds for UK universities and innovative businesses. It is one of the areas where the UK gets back as much cash from the EU budget as we put into it. I have seen some cutting edge research in the East of England funded from this pot of money. However, it also has a reputation for being the most bureaucratic funding system on the planet. Last Autumn after long conversations with science and industry, the Parliament voted almost unanimously on a wide range of practical suggestions to speed up the grants process and simplify the system. Whilst the Commission President voiced his support for simplification I am concerned that very little may actually be happening"

In a debate on EU competition policy Vicky Ford raised the issue of hikes in domestic heating oil prices.

"The European Commission has massive power to investigate and take actions, including levying fines, if they believe that companies are price fixing or acting in an anti-competitive manner across EU national borders. This year the Commission will be looking at the Energy market. However they tend to focus on just Electricity and Gas Prices. In the East of England nearly a quarter of households do not have access to mains gas and the vast majority of these rural homes rely on domestic heating oil. Between November and December´s cold period residents experienced price rises in some cases over 50%. I know that suppliers worked incredibly hard to try to meet the very high demand in treacherous conditions however various MPs in the UK have called for an Office of Fair Trading investigation to check whether there are cartels operating to fix prices. It is right that if this is purely a UK National issue then it should be investigated by the UK regulator but there have also been price hikes in other countries including Ireland. I wanted to ensure that the Competition Commissioner is aware of the issue. In their review of Energy markets they must recognise that different countries have different energy supply systems and they should not forget rural areas."

Vicky met with ENI, an Italian Oil company and spoke to Statoil a Norwegian Oil company regarding Safety of Deep Sea Offshore Oil Drilling.

"After the Deep-Water Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico Italy immediately put a moratorium on all offshore drilling, but is now considering lifting this. The UK did not impose a moratorium but has taken numerous actions including increasing safety inspections. I have been reading about the UK´s own rigorous safety procedures and the recommendations from both the UK Parliament investigation and US investigation. Poor legislation contributed to the events that led up to the Gulf disaster. It is important that lessons are learnt and best practices are upheld."

Vicky has had various meetings with outside experts and other MEPs regarding Economic Governance. She is the Parliament´s Rapporteur on a new directive on fiscal frameworks that discusses how countries set national budgets.

"this Directive will NOT give Brussels bureaucrats the ability to reject British budgets. It calls for national governments to have at least a 3 year forecasting horizon when looking at tax and spending policy. The UK already does this. Some in the Eurozone wish to give more centralised powers to Brussels following the Eurozone crisis, this should not be automatically applied to those countries who have chosen to stay out the Euro. The UK government has agreed to take part in a new annual "European Semester" when national governments can discuss and comment on each others budget forecasts - I believe it would be more transparent if the EU´s own budget was also discussed at the same time".

Pensions Vicky took part in a debate on pensions in the Committee of Economic and Monetary Affairs. The European Commission has recently launched a consultation on pensions and the Committee will vote on a series of recommendations from the Parliament next week. Vicky has submitted an amendment requesting a review into the pension schemes of EU institutions. The issue of an ageing population and how to fund an ever growing pensions gap is faced by many countries across Europe.

"I was glad to hear many MEPs saying that pensions policies should remain with National Governments not with European Institutions. However there could be improvements by sharing best practice on for example information that is provided to savers on their pensions options. In addition more could be done to make sure that pension savings from one country can be moved to others."

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