Monday, 14 February 2011

Weekly brief on Environment, Pigs, Bank Accounts and Economics...

This week saw a high footfall of visitors to the European Parliament - a large crowd gathered to see Prince Charles, lots of people turned up to support pig welfare, but the bankers came unaccompanied.

Many more MEPs turned up to listen to the Prince of Wales than would turn up to listen to the Presidents of the European Commission, European Parliament or the European Council. Indeed all 3 presidents turned up for the Prince. In my notes on the Prince’s speech I have written that HRH argued that to have a sustainable economic system you need a sustainable eco system -for long term economic growth one needs long-term environmental sustainability. I’m glad I wrote this down as a fellow MEP, who had not been present told me later that the Prince had said we should stop economic growth altogether.

In another meeting room down the hall there was a well attended screening of the film “Pig Business” ( which shows some horrific footage of pig factory farms in Poland and the environmental damage that is associated them. My email box has been full of notes from residents of the East of England asking me to attend – so I joined the following debate, having seen the film on an earlier occasion.

This is a particularly important issue in East Anglia because so many of England’s pigs are in this part of the country. A few years ago the UK imposed higher welfare standards than across the EU which the caused many British farmers to find they could not compete against imports and they stopped production altogether. The EU is now looking at pig welfare, I would like to see the playing field moved upwards to UK standards - as well as clearer labelling to give consumers choice. I have long been a supporter of Country of Origin food labelling. This went through the European Parliament by a narrow majority last year - it will happen but will take time.

I met the consumer rights group Which?, who wanted to talk about whether your money is safe in a bank. As you remember, after the Northern Rock crisis there was a flight of money from the UK to Ireland when the Irish government said they would guarantee all the cash in personal bank accounts. This race for which government would guarantee the most clearly distorted free competition, jeopardising otherwise healthy banks. As a result there is now an agreement that there should be a standard guarantee of €100,000 (about £80,000) across the EU. In each country banks should set aside money to fund this, rather than taxpayers. We are now negotiating the finer details. “Which?” asked what happens to the person who has just received the insurance money because their house was burnt down - we need to make sure that one- off extraordinary bank balances are still covered.

When asked by “Which?” - what happens if you have some money in for example HSBC and other money in First Direct - a brand of the same bank? I’m afraid I did not agree with their suggestion that the two bank accounts should be covered separately. I don’t want to see life savings wiped out but if you are in the lucky position to hold more than £80,000 in bank accounts you need to be able to take responsibility for checking who guarantees it - better consumer labelling may be helpful here too.”

A delegation from Norway also came to talk to me about the deposit guarantees - Norway is not part of the EU - they have no vote and no say - but their trade agreement with the EU obliges them to apply all EU rules. They are extremely concerned how new rules on bank deposits could affect their own domestic banking system.

During the week I joined a group of 6 British MEPs from 3 major parties and a German MEP in a meeting with a senior management team from Barclays bank. I also attended a dinner with leaders of insurance companies, pension funds and banks. There is a plethora of legislation on financial services and economic matters working its way through European legislation- some of which is as a result of global discussions following G20 agreements. Senior management from other banks from Germany and the US amongst others have been regular visitors to Brussels, UK banks less so.

“A balance still needs to be achieved between requiring banks to put aside money to prevent further collapses versus lending money to the wider economy, helping save for pensions etc - as well as achieving a global level playing field. I still believe that there is much more that the financial services industry could do to help ensure that a correct balance between safer finances and funding growth is achieved.”

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