Monday, 31 January 2011

weekly brief on super cars, pensions, and gold

I meant to post this on Friday but it was a bit of a busy time.... here were my highlights of last week.

Lotus I met representatives from Lotus Cars who were in Brussels to meet with the European Commission to explain their new business plan. Lotus are intending to move into the “super car” market. EU legislation on co2 emmisions will to set targets for each manufacturer. This was agreed a couple of years ago before I became an MEP but in the following months the actual targets will be set. .

Lotus is a Norfolk based company. This was a very helpful update. It is important that we focus on how legislation affects local companies when rules are implemented as well as during the initial negotiations.

Pensions My amendment calling for a review of the EU’s own pension scheme was passed - at least at the committee stage.

Pension costs are a large and growing element of the EU budget so I have been calling for a review of the pensions policy of EU institutions. The EU pension scheme has a retirement age of 63 and was last reviewed in 2004. Given that in many EU countries people are being asked to work longer I thing it is only right that the EU should take a fresh look at its own policies. Last Autumn my Group didn’t get support from the rest of the Parliament on this in a similar vote - but this week in the Economic Affairs Committee we (just) got a majority. This will now go to another vote of the employment committee and then hopefully full parliament in upcoming weeks.

raw materials and recycling this week I went to a “hearing” in the Parliament on raw materials - these events often bring in experts from industry and others. We learnt about the importance and value of including precious metals in recycling - especially as these become rarer. For example one tonne of ore in a gold mine will on average produce just 5g of gold - but a tonne of mobile phones contains around 300 -350g. Yet less than 2 percent of mobile phones are recycled. The phrase “urban mine” was a new one to me but one I expect to hear more of.

Banks and Finance - I’ve had a series of meetings regarding banks and finance this week. Including listening to Danish bank, Nykredit, telling MEPs about their unique system for financing mortgages which gives the house buyer direct access to market prices. I also joined a group of German, French and Austrian MEPs on a trip to London meeting MPs, members of the house of Lords, the Treasury and the Bank of England. The MEPs were given clear messages about needing to work on better thought through regulation not just at a European level but globally too - as well as the importance of getting lending working for the wider economy.

Economic Governance - As one of the 6 MEPs working on the “Economic Governance” package I took part in the debate on these reports. An other MEP are called for countries to have to have their economic budgets audited by the European Court of Auditors - and for them to have to pre agreed economic forecasts with the European Commission. Whilst it is perfectly reasonable to expect countries to provide clear transparent information and listen to concerns of their neighbours, in my view national budgets are a national decision.

Finally - Sharon Bowles MEP, chairman of the Economic Affairs committee kindly let me sit in on a meeting with Jamie Dimon, head of JP Morgan. He had come from Washington via Brussels en route to the World Economic Forum in Davos. At the European Commission he had been given the red carpet treatment but on arrival at the European Parliament there was such a huge queue for visitors he couldn’t get through security - so we had the meeting very publicly in the entrance lobby! We discussed issues from bank capital to derivatives to market transparency to the global economy. Now thats not being lobbied behind closed doors.

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."

Sunday, 16 January 2011

New year - New transparency

I've started 2011 with two new year's resolutions. One is to try to be on time for meetings (not great so far but better) the other is to send local and regional  press organisations a very short weekly debrief on some of the  meetings or discussions that I have had each week. 

Below is what went out on Friday with issues including Offshore Oil drilling, Bank reform and bonuses, Female only car insurance, Economics of the Eurozone and governance reforms as well as fish discards and mobile broadband. The press release offers that any local journalist can call me or the office in Brussels or the UK for follow up details if they are interested to know more. So far Radio Norfolk asked me to speak about the outrage of fish discards, one local paper has put it on its website and another journalist has emailed a "thank you".

My husband hates the "Vicky is" "Vicky said" format - and I agree - so if anyone has a better format idea let me know.

Journalists and others often complain about lack of transparency from Europe - this is my attempt to help but if there is not a lot of interest in weeks to come then I will break the resolution and perhaps try something else.

-   Vicky has been tasked by the Parliament's Industry,  Research and Energy Committee to draft a parliamentary report on the safety of deep-sea offshore oil and gas drilling. Vicky is looking to prepare a first draft of her report by March to influence the Commission's thinking on any new potential legislation at an EU level.

"Offshore oil and gas in the North Sea is extremely important to  the UK. We have more experience in this area than all other EU  countries so it is a huge honour as well as a responsibility to be  given this role.   Post the Gulf of Mexico "Deepwater" disaster there are  serious questions that deserve an answer.  I will be consulting the industry, national regulators and environmentalists in  the weeks ahead.  I hope the report will allow MEPs from all countries  to come to an informed and well-considered view."
- Meeting with many representatives of European and International banks regarding new global rules on bank capital and liquidity.    During recent months Vicky has been one of 5 MEPs from different  parties and countries looking at how these rules can be introduced in  the UK and Europe in a co-ordinated manner.  Vicky is a former banker  and was invited as a key note speaker  alongside representatives from  the British Banking Association and the European Commission.
"As we saw in Ireland the banking crisis in Europe is still not  resolved, there needs to be stronger, more stable banks. Taxpayers  should never have to bail out banks.  The UK has already ensured that  all our banks are well capitalised but new rules need to be brought  into place across the globe. Whilst we need strong banks we also  need banks that are able to lend to fuel the economy. Globally all  countries have signed off on high-level agreement but the devil is in  the detail - it is right that certain countries try to ensure that good  local practices are not disadvantaged (like the UK Building society  model) - but MEPS must not try to protect not poor local practices-   especially given the Eurozone crisis. This meeting involved issues  from domestic lending and mortgages,  to trade finance (important when  exporting to emerging countries).  I have had subsequent follow up  meetings this week with asset managers on  to  the unintended (but  potentially very costly) impact on insurance rates and pension fund  returns of other new rules on financial services, especially hedging."

 -meeting with ESure - owner of "Sheila’s Wheels"  an insurance company aimed exclusively at women.  The  European Court of Justice is currently deliberating whether it it  discriminatory for insurance companies to offer cheaper rates to women  drivers than male drivers.   
"The European Court is a totally separate body from the European  Parliament but I am worried by what precedent could be set.  As a  mother of two boys it is of course alarming  to hear that young male drivers still have far higher accident rates than their female counterparts - but facts show this is the truth.   That is why women are offered cheaper car insurance.    Where could this end? - should everyone have to pay the same household insurance even if living in lower crime areas? - whats the incentive then to have a watch-thy-neighbour approach to crime prevention?- this does open a Pandoras box.

- meeting with  Struan Stevenson MEP, vice chairman of the Fisheries  Committee of the European Parliament regarding fish discards. 

"This week UK TV viewers have been able to see an excellent and informative  program by  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtstall that demonstrated the  outrageous effect that of EU Fishery Policy leading to a million of tons of healthy fish being caught but then dumped overboard.   We have been fighting this for many years but are seeing hopeful progress for reform."

- meeting with Chief Executive of Ofcom Ed Richard regarding broadband access and other issues.

"It was extremely helpful to quiz Ofcom on many issues - especially on broadband roll-out where he believes that the UK is set to be well ahead of other countries in just a few years.  However, I had a lot of questions regarding the issue of rural broadband."

  - meeting with other MEPs regarding Pensions.  Vicky is one of 5 MEPs looking at a parliament report on pension policy.  MEPs have  submitted amendments.

 "The issue of how to fund our lives as we all live longer is a common  issue across Europe and I  have nothing against sharing best practices  - but all countries are different and should  not be forced to be the  same.  Fortunately many other MEPs from other countries seem to agree on this.  Public sector pensions are a huge issue in many European Countries including the UK and  I have submitted a suggestion that the  EU institutions (including the European Commission) should review its own pensions scheme that they themselves are following best practice.   it could be controversial but in my view is only right.

- various meetings regarding the Eurozone situation and "economic governance".  Vicky is one of 6 MEPs leading the Parliament's review of new proposals regarding national government's budgetary planning and excessive deficits.

 "This is a huge work stream which I have been involved in since last  summer - as we have learnt in the UK ballooning of government debt  carries an extremely painful price for all - but this is multiplied in many parts of the Eurozone during this crisis.  In the UK the government prepares 3 or even 5 year forecasts before setting taxes  and deciding spending - and we still got into difficulties.   Many other countries don't do this even though they have continually  promised to do so.   My report does not give EU officials the right to  set UK budgets but does suggest that best practice in setting national  budgets should be followed. It also suggests that the EU's own budget  should be equally scrutinised.  Other parts of the Economic Governance package refer to specific actions to be taken within the Eurozone following the crisis, such as applying fines and other sanctions to countries that breach financial rules. These fines will not apply to the UK.  

- Bankers' bonuses - Last year Vicky was one of the the leading MEPs setting new rules on bankers’ bonuses. The Coalition government has chosen the toughest line to take within the framework of the European rules. These are now amongst the strictest bonus rules across the globe. At least 40% of bonuses for senior risk takers must be deferred and no more than 50% can be paid in cash.

"Banks must moderate their remuneration and act responsibly. One of the causes of the financial crisis was that risk takers were paid large amounts of money upfront but long term risks of the positions they had taken remained with the bank.  New rules do need to be agreed internationally as we all know that banking is an extremely mobile and global business.