Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Worth a vote

As you may know it is not unusual for MEPs to table hundreds, sometimes thousands, of amendments to European legislation.   This one from a Dutch MEP is particularly beautifully drafted....
Amendment  36

Draft opinion
2. Agrees that Parliament would be more effective and cost-efficient if it were located in a single place; resolves, therefore, to propose Treaty changes under Article 48 of the TEU.
2. Agrees that Parliament would be most effective and cost-efficient if it were notlocated in any place at all but immediately abolished;

...  sadly this amendment unlikely to garner a majority but if we get the original language through then we are another step towards ending the hugely wasteful Strasbourg Circus.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Sharing ideas at the forefront of science

Today I have visited three very impressive organisations.   The Hauser Forum on the West Cambridge site.  Over early morning coffee a group of experts from construction to finance discussed how to mobilise local energy investment - I particularly liked the head teacher who described the work he is doing to completely change energy use at his school.  

Then TWI - one of my favourite places for meeting real manufacturing problem-busters. If you want to work out how to stick the lid on a container of nuclear waste so it stays sealed for 5,000 years then you go to TWI.    We had a long discussion about the work they are doing leading international collaboration in advanced manufacturing - and Yes we do still make things in the UK. 

The Sanger Centre is home to "human genome project" and the European bio informatics centre which is basically a huge, huge, huge data centre for storing the results every time a bit of a genome is sequenced.

For example, today they showed me a project where tissue samples from people with rare cancers from across the globe are genome sequenced and then compared to the genetics of  skin stem cells  samples given by "normal" donors.   The aim of these projects is to try to find out which bit of the gene might carry the part which triggers the proteins which produce the cancer and then use that information to target a "drug" straight into that part of the gene to switch it off... (I'm not the medic in the family so I hope got the explanation sort of right).  The data from this type of study is then shared with other research organisations which want to look at details of specific bits of a genome.  Furthermore once data is analysed the stem cell lines grown from the tissue samples are the made available to other re medical researchers across the globe.

We had a long chat about proposed EU rules on data sharing.  The Sanger centre has worked with 90 other research organisations across the globe to produce a standard protocol (the "Alliance") for data sharing - with the support of patient groups.   

Sanger team members described another project looking at different bacteria - for example MRSA and TB.  Sanger explained how they had used studies of the genetics in a MRSA outbreak in a special care baby unit to work out exactly how the infection was being spread and then were able to stop the bug.   They believe it will soon become quite normal for a UK hospital to do a genetic sequencing of a TB bacteria in order to see exactly what strain and mutation it is and thus to work out where the patient got it from - this will then make it much easier to stop the spread of the disease.  Given increases in drug resistance, to combat diseases in the future it will be vital that hospitals share this sort of data.   FYI to give you an idea of how fast this technology has moved on 10 years ago it would have cost £250,000 to sequence one bacterium and taken 18 months.  Now it costs £50 and can be done overnight.  

As an MEP I be looking at the  international legislation and agreements on data sharing when the file comes to the full parliament in the autumn.   I am really glad that among the Conservative MEPs we have some experts in this area of the law.   Thank you to  The Sanger Centre and Wellcome Trust for teaching me today!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

I´m looking forward to next week!

A few months ago I started sending a "week ahead" briefing to local press.  This helps be to think ahead and be transparent.  Here is the one for next week which I am really looking forward to!

Week Ahead for Monday 8th July

This will be the last meeting of European Parliament Committees prior to a summer break.  The Parliament will reconvene week commencing 26 August

Monday 8th July
As part of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, Vicky will be attending a meeting with Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank.

Tuesday 9th July
Vicky will take part in a debate on long term investment.  Vicky has frequently argued that EU legislation on financial services is restricting long term investors such as pension funds and insurance companies and thus constraining private sector investments in infrastucture.s

Vicky will vote on the Industry, Research and Energy Committee.
Vicky will meet with the Countryside Alliance to discuss the rural economy, the impact of EU legislation on shooting in the UK, with particular reference to lead shot ammunition, and invasive alien species.    Vicky has been supporting the CLA campaign to prevent a further ban on lead shot in the UK, arguing that other countries should instead follow the UK in banning use of lead shot in wetlands.
Vicky will attend the Annual General Assembly of New Direction, a Conservative think tank supporting the reform of the UK's relationship with the EU.

Wednesday 10th July
Vicky will take part in final negotiations on the  Recovery and Resolution Directive as part of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. This Directive relates to how cross-border bank failures are prevented and  managed. Vicky has successfully led an opposition to proposals which involve the UK having to pay into bailout funds and has succeeded in getting amendments passed which permit the UK to use its bank levy system as an alternative. This issue has become more highly charged in the UK given the Co-operative's bank's financial situation, bringing to light the need to strike a balance between authorities having the flexibility to deal with each crisis differently and legal certainty for investors.

Vicky will be holding a "constituency surgery" for MPs in Westminster.   Vicky is the first MEP to hold such surgeries.   She finds this allows individual MPs to discuss directly EU issues which affect their own constituents.  This time she will be meeting 7 MPs from Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, and Hertfordshire.

Thursday 11th July
Vicky will attend a seminar on Cambridge City Council to discuss the Mobilising Local Energy Investment project. This local project aims to drive economic growth in the area and provide sustainable energy security.  This has been partly funded through EU grants.

Vicky is visiting the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to discuss the EU proposals on Data Protection and their potential impact on medical and scientific research.   

Vicky is visiting The Welding Institute in Cambridge to discuss the £65 billion EU programme for science and research (Horizon 2020) and how this might help develop high value manufacturing for the UK.

Friday 12th July
Vicky will be joining volunteers on the River Waveney to look at work they have done to control floating pennywort, a highly invasive species.  
Saturday 13 July
Vicky will be opening Beeston village fete in Norfolk.  Vicky visited Beeston primary school in 2010 to see their pioneering project bringing broadband to a very rural area.

Vicky Ford MEP - Say "no" to the FTT

Monday, 24 June 2013

Getting money out of Brussels

No wonder people find EU budgets confusing and frustrating.   On one hand we saw a huge media frenzy when the Prime Minister had his all night negotiation in February and secured the first time ever EU budget cut, now months later the details on the seven year Medium Term Financial Framework are still not yet finalised.

Last Monday night my own negotiations ran on until 2.30 am.  This was on "Horizon 2020" the €70 billion program for funding science and research.   It is one of the few areas where the UK gets back roughly what we put into the EU budget, and a very important sources of funds for scientists and entrepreneurs across the East of England.   However these EU research programs have a terrible reputation for bureaucracy and red tape.   I have been gathering evidence and suggestions for reforms for the past 3 years and the negotiations on the detailed changes have been going on for months.   We are edging towards a deal which will (I hope) result in some simplifications for participants, less red tape and more directed assistance for small businesses.  One of my priorities has been to make sure that funds will go to the best bids, based on excellence.  Recent studies have shown that scientific research which is the result of international collaboration tends to have a greater impact.  I believe that we should only fund internationally projects where international collaboration really does add value.

Getting money out of Brussels for local projects can be  really hard work.  On Friday Bernard Jenkin MP and I visited the Essex Wildlife trust who have recently had their funding bid rejected in Europe.   The aim is to try to buy a piece of riverside land next to their site at Fingringhoe Wick and replace salt marsh habitat.   As I write Bernard's office are trying to unlock a crucial part of the bid paperwork and to work out if we in the UK are gold plating the application form - all before a bid deadline of tomorrow!

In the meantime I am about to jump back on a Eurostar and go back into those negotiations on Science funding.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Who is winning Energy battles - UK vs EU

I enjoyed speaking to the Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies in May. It gave me a chance to reflect on what I have seen in the past 4 years and how UK policy affects EU thinking on energy issues and vice versa.  I have written an article for their magazine - which I thought I should also put here.

There are three legs to energy policy; energy security, the cost of energy and how costs affect competitiveness, and how energy and climate policy work together.  All three issues are inter-related and conflict; and often when trying to address one issue it can often make another worse.
A one-size-fits-all policy on Energy is unworkable. The public perception of acceptable energy varies from country to country. Just when the UK is investing in new nuclear, Germany is abandoning it.  What's more, we are at a time when private sector investment is under huge pressure.

Longer standing MEPs tell me that 20 years ago the priority was competitiveness, it then swung towards decarbonisation and climate change, but in this 4 year period security has also been a priority. 
In the UK energy security is important, but it is one of many concerns. However many of my  Eastern European colleagues would list it as their biggest however priority.  They remember how  Gazprom switched off the lights in the depths of winter in early 2009. This has driven a strategy to improve energy security infrastructure especially interconnectors and storage.

It is important to stress that this public money is not meant to fund everything, but is intended to plug infrastructure holes where there no private sector or national funding.
Interconnectors will also help the UK to diversify energy for example linking offshore North Sea wind to Norway's hydro storage capacity. Gas interconnectors are important because the UK has less gas storage than others. I have visited the two-way pipeline running out of remote Bacton in Norfolk, but most people didn’t realise how important it was until it temporarily shut down in March. 

As the House of Lords' committee pointed out in May[1], the required investment in European energy infrastructure is in the order of one trillion euros by 2020.  Whilst the proposed investment from the EU budget will increase to €5bn between 2014 and 2020, it is vital to unlock private sector investment.   Investors are challenged by uncertainty since politicians are increasingly concerned about affordability and are less willing to commit to long-term price contracts.  Furthermore, many EU financial sector laws impact negatively on investment; Solvency II will constrain insurance companies investing in long-dated BBB bonds, new Basel III rules for banks will impact on longer-dated lending, any financial transaction tax will reduce investment returns.
MEPs prioritised competitiveness in the recent vote on proposals to "backload" allowances in the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).  Businesses supporting backloading said it would help them invest in newer generation technologies.  Others said it would raise energy prices, forcing energy users to re-locate overseas.  Everyone agreed that the proposals were a short-term sticking plaster and did not help long-term certainty.

Some argued that it would help the UK if backloading pushed up the continental price of carbon towards the UK's carbon floor price.  But colleagues especially in Germany and Eastern Europe were concerned about the impact on competitiveness. Backloading was eventually rejected by just 19 votes, showing how finely balanced the issue was.
UK MEPs can influence EU energy policy. A year ago, we were concerned about pending EU rules on derivatives trading and their impact on energy hedges and about the proposed EU Regulation on offshore oil and gas.

Through Parliament amendments we have exempted hedges for business risks from the derivatives trading rules, thus neutralising the impact on costs. We have also completely rewritten the offshore oil and gas legislation. In fact I tabled over 300 amendments to the draft legislation to alter the text line by line.  Instead of a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all Regulation we have a Directive.  The high quality North Sea safety standards will not be dumbed down but will be followed in the rest of Europe.  An estimated £146m of implementation costs have been saved. This required huge assistance from UK DECC and HSE experts, cross-party co-ordination by British MEPs and close work with members from other countries, in particular with the Belgian rapporteur.
Another major problem is that EU laws are often insufficiently impact assessed and thousands of amendments are tabled through the Parliament without detailed analysis.

For example on the Energy Efficiency Directive the Parliament was split between those who thought energy savings policies should enable households and businesses to save on their energy bills and those who pursued a target-driven, headline-grabbing approach. My own view is that EU targets are easily set but rarely met. But even the best impact assessments are not a crystal ball. I was extremely concerned to read recently that the UK's Energy Company Obligation programme may add up to £100 to household bills, especially as the UK was often cited by other European countries as a standard-setter in this area. 
Public concern about energy bills is growing.. If we want public support for decarbonisation policies we must be highly attentive to the impact of policies on prices. MEPs are now more wary of taking first-mover actions on climate policy in Europe if it impacts our global competitiveness and want to push back on EU legislation if it places extra costs on consumers and businesses. Climate policy has to be flexible and there are many technologies which will help us meet our goals. It was therefore alarming to see momentum (from certain corners) behind an outright EU ban on shale gas fracking.  Under the European Treaty countries are entitled to the economic benefits from their resources and we need to uphold this principal.

To conclude, the UK can play a key part in reforming EU policy, but there are vast differences in Member States' energy mixes and domestic energy policies so we cannot accept a top-down, rigid approach from Brussels. Energy security, energy prices and decarbonisation all pull against each other, reconciling them is not easy, but it is important to try to keep them balanced.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Helping businesses to grow.

In Europe MEPs often talk about small and medium sized businesses but then also seem to do very little to help them.  The truth is that small businesses are a very diverse bunch and there is no one size fits all solution.  

In Brussels this week I supported Robert Sturdy MEP who was hosting a workshop on “Inadvertent Doping”. This was co-ordinated by HFL, a world leading company based in Cambridgeshire.  They want to help athletes to avoid taking banned substances by mistake.   They brought together experts from all across Europe to brainstorm solutions.  There is a lot of money at stake too. The market for Food supplements used by amateur athletes is already over a billion pounds and has doubled in the last decade.  The companies described how they would like stronger global standards.
Today, I met a group of small businesses in Freckenham with Matt Hancock MP who has just been made the Government’s new Small Business champion.  Businesses asked me what we could do to unlock some of the bureaucracy of EU regulation in public procurement contracts so I described the work we are doing to change the style of contract negotiations to favour innovation.  I discussed my campaign to exempt micro businesses from all EU regulations (lots of head nodded. There is much to be done in ensuring that European red tape does not strangle our small businesses.   After four years of campaigning the EU has finally listed  ‘Top 10 most burdensome EU Acts for SMEs?’ – now I want to see some Action to repeal or change those Acts - we will be debating it next week in Strasbourg.

Having the right infrastructure for business growth is also essential.  So, at the other end of the scale, this week, it was great to see the huge £40m investment in the North Terminal Railhead at Felixstowe Port.  This will help to double the amount of freight travelling by rail get even more trucks off our roads – from Suffolk, through Cambridgeshire and all the way to the Midlands and further afield. I have been working on this project for more than five years.   Every time we get public or private investment for a bit of the route to be upgraded I help to get a bit of match funding from the EU budget.  Of course we need the road improvements too but the rail is a good start.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Finding Fresh Start friends

I have spent the past 48 hours in Warsaw with 3 MPs representing the Fresh Start Project: Therese Coffey, Tim Loughton and Guto Bebb.

If we are to reform our relationship with the EU, we need to be specific about what we want. I have been helping Fresh Start to look at different options of reform in different sectors of policy making, from fishing to farming to financial services and from immigration to energy and the environment.
We are also going to need to find like-minded politicians across Europe who are sympathetic to our vision of rolling back decision-making to national or local governments where appropriate, and encouraging a Free Market ethos for the Single Market. This means reducing barriers to trade, putting competitiveness first and saving taxpayers' money.

Poland is one of the five larger countries in the EU, by population, and the only other one of the "big five" outside the eurozone. It is important for the UK that we have allies outside the eurozone who will help us enshrine the differences between eurozone and non-eurozone countries in the negotiations ahead. It was particularly good to meet one of the senior politicians from Poland who had negotiated the Lisbon Treaty, Anna Fotyga. She explained that she thinks too much power is being given to Brussels institutions in economic decision-making and was very supportive for the need for reform.

Delegations from Fresh Start have already been to Berlin and are moving onwards to Prague, Madrid and Copenhagen.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Local businesses supporting each other in Bedford

I have been in Bedford today with Richard Fuller MP.  He told me about the work being done locally by their "BID" Business improvement district.  Learning from the outstanding examples set by the Games-makers at London 2012,  local businesses are working together to make sure that visitors to the town have the best possible customer experience.   We visited three truly unique independent companies - and it really is impressive.  I will definitely be coming back shopping!   It was good to hear that shop takings are up and the retailers believe that the worst of the recession is behind us.

Richard Fuller MP also came with me to visit the Co-operative Pharmacy in Putnoe.  I've been asking some questions about "parallel trading" of pharmaceuticals in Brussels and the Managing Director of Co-op chemists, John Nuttall had asked to meet.

Richard and I learnt about how local chemists can bring great value to a local area, promoting better health and helping the local community.  John and his staff explained that from time to time it can be challenging to obtain certain medicines and that sometimes this is due to stocks which were initially destined for British patients being sold by wholesalers to buyers in other European countries.   This "parallel trading" does sometimes help to keep prices lower, but shortages are always concerning.   We were told that Department of Health officials are having a good look at the costs and prices charged along the supply chain.  I think it is important to make sure that there are not anti-competitive practices. We need affordable medicines but we also need available medicines.

This was also a good time to discuss the new procedures that are coming into place to help reduce counterfeiting of drugs.  One in four "fake" products captured at borders is a fake drug - and even some prescription drugs have been affected.  In Brussels there are new rules coming into place from 1st July which will mean produces of active ingredients of drugs need to be certified - even from as far afield as India and China.  This should be good for patient safety.  I met the European Commissioner responsible earlier this month  and asked for his reassurance that there should not be any shortfalls in supply during the transition.  It was good to hear from the pharmacists on the ground that they are not seeing any supply issues due to the implementation.

Friday, 17 May 2013

A smarter way of living - delivering skills for young people for the new jobs just round the corner.

I had a great morning at smartLIFE in Cambridge today.   They give hands on practical training in how to build the very best of energy efficient homes.   This is about providing real skills to help people save real money on their energy bills.

Youth unemployment is a big concern - young people often say to me that they want skills which match up to local job needs.  "smartLIFE" works with construction and building companies, local councils and planning authorities to identify what skills will be needed and where.  Then hand in hand with local schools, further education colleges and universities it is matching the training to the jobs that are likely to come on stream.  I also works with schools to identify those 13 -14 year olds who might become the NEETs of the future, and gives them training of real skills.  In addition it runs tailored training programs for plumbers, builders, heating experts, electricians who want to learn about the latest technology - especially in energy efficiency.

The facilities are awesome.   In one building they have the ability to construct entire houses undercover so that trainees can learn safely in all weather conditions.  Down the road where I visited today there are hands-on, real-life working prototypes of solar panels, heat pumps and exchangers.  The group in this photo were learning how to do a test run on the latest generation wood-chip boiler - it will save at least 50% off oil fired boilers.  Given that over 20% of East Anglian households don't have access to mains gas this sort of technology is more and more attractive.

Its not just Cambridge, they have a new facility looking a teaching how to retrofit existing buildings which is based in Wisbech, deep in the Fens.   Peterborough has plans to open a smartLIFE centre teenagers from as far as Kent come for training sessions.  Internationally they exchange ideas with partners in Germany and Sweden.  The boss is on his way to present to a conference in Florida.  There is even interest in Brazil.  This all helps to make sure that the skills being delivered locally are of the highest standards.

smartLIFE have received substantial grants from the EU budget.  Some of these grants have been liberating and enabled development of cutting edge ideas, others have been red tape, rigid and "dusty".  In Europe I have led work for the Conservatives and Reformists on energy efficiency.  Energy prices are ever increasing, energy security is a growing concern, we need to save energy without switching out light.

To help young people we need local solutions which deliver the right skills for the local development.  We don't need top down rigid targets from Brussels - but there is a huge amount we can learn from other areas and other countries too.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A bit of hope for the motorist ...

I am pleased to hear that competition officials have finally sent in the inspector heavies in to ask whether there is price fixing at the petrol pumps.  Prices go up like rockets but down like feathers - why?   The wonderfully hard working MP Robert Halfon started rattling cages on this in the UK last year - and I told him we should ask for an international investigation, these are international companies.   My office, working with Rob's office then tabled the first parliamentary question whichl led to question after question in Europe - as well as an increasingly pathetic responses from officials.   It all went a bit silent for a while ... ominous when things go silent ...  then bang, investigators arrive....  it is nice to think we lit a bit of a touch paper here.

If the oil companies are innocent then we need to think again about causes of our high pump prices.   If  not then motorists deserve to be steering their way to a better deal - Furthermore if this does result in fines the money must come back to the UK and national budgets not be squandered in Brussels.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Seed ban rumours may be a bit overgrown

I am receiving lots of emails from keen gardeners who are concerned about rumours that there is going to be an EU ban on heritage seeds.  I have spoken to the EU Commissioner responsible. Currently there are a number of EU laws that are trying to ensure seeds sold by large manufacturers for agriculture are correctly labelled.  These laws currently require that all seeds should be registered.  This is clearly unworkable and impractical. 

Therefore the Commissioner has proposed to radically simplify the registration and to give specific exemptions for niche seeds and private gardeners as well as a lower compliance level for "traditional seeds" and small companies.

As readers will know I often have  disagreements with comments made by EU commissioners but this time I was more hopeful. I have been campaigning for small businesses to get exemptions from EU laws and it sounds as if these draft proposals intend to do just that.

The new rules are not finalised.  In coming months MEPs will be allowed to table amendments.

I am going to get in touch with Rothamsted Research and John Innes Centre, both leading agricultural research organisations in East Anglia and custodians of heritage seed banks, and will get their advice.   As a gardener I think it's extremely important that we nurture our diverse heritage of plants and we shouldn't allow this European legislation to get too overbearing. I will fight for a rolling back of regulation.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Local Elections - The Only Way is Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Herts

This week is one of the rare “missions” week in the European Parliament - some of my colleagues use this time to fly to far flung places.  I don’t.  I have some meetings around the East of England and will be knocking on doors listening to peoples views in the run up to the local elections.   We don't have local elections in Bedfordshire this year but we do in Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire.

One of things I enjoy most about my job is the great characters I meet -  And many of those are our local councillors.  A few months ago I met Cllr Ray Howard, who has been  representing Canvey Island for decades.   We were visiting the gas storage facility on the Island together with Rebecca Harris MP. Ray taught me more about the history and evolution of Eastern England’s energy supply in that afternoon than I would have learnt in months of reading.   

Ray was fighting for his local residents, explaining why an extension of the plant into LNG would be inappropriate "freeze drying" the local community, pointing out exactly which parts of which local roads need improving and championing the local youth work which the plant helps to fund.

On Saturday afternoon Ray’s grandson turned up in Canvey Island to help his granddad get re-elected.  This caused quite a stir as Ray’s grandson Charlie is @CharlieKing85 one of the stars in TV show “The Only Way is Essex” #TOWIE.   Swarms of fans arrived and Charlie had picture after picture taken.   People were coming up to the street stall and asking for a leaflet.

Standing on a street stall campaigning for local elections isn’t exactly every young persons idea of a cool way to spend Saturday afternoon.  I asked Charlie why he was there.  “Ever since I was little I’ve known that Grandad really cares for Canvey” he replied.  During the morning Charlie spoke to young people about bullying, as we walked back to the car later we talked about his mums work caring for older people and those with dementia.   I was really impressed.  

Local elections are about local people - I hope voters will turn up for Charlie’s Grandad and many other great local councillors this Thursday.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Defending the UK in a global world ...

On St George's day I raced back to London from Brussels to meet with Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Bank of England.

I find myself in the midst of long and extraordinarily complicated discussions over who calls what shots when a cross-border bank fails. This has become extremely topical and just-a-bit-heated since the failure of Cyprus' banks. A real lesson in the dangers and uncertainty created by regulators and politicians when they send out very mixed messages.  

It is also quite an interesting case study of my day job!

I have been following this legislation for a while now.  The failure of Lehman’s, RBS, HBoS and others sparked off thinking at a G20 global level on how regulators might be better able to deal with a bank collapse; by preparing in advance (living wills) and by being able to take a range of different possible actions. This work has been co-ordinated at the global level by the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor Paul Tucker. The EU “Recovery and Resolution Directive (RRD)” is Europe’s attempt to bring this into law.

Paul and his team are quite clear: given the importance of financial services in the UK, we need to be able to work transatlantically UK/US should there be another Lehman’s (God forbid) and in the future we need India and China too. But to keep the pressure on the global deals we need an EU template - preferably before the G20 meeting in the autumn.  Which, when you take into account summer breaks and lead up times to such meetings, really means the BoE want it agreed now.

UKIP would tell you that this sort of thing is all set by unelected bureaucrats. Actually,  to get agreement in Europe it needs to have the agreement of the European Council (i.e. by a vote of the 27 Finance ministers) and by a vote of the European Parliament.   

In the Parliament five MEPs lead the negotiations.  The Rapporteur and his “Shadows” from different political groups. For the past few months we have been working through the hundreds of amendments tabled by members, deciding which ones to re-word and which to bring to a vote of the Parliament’s committee.  We had hoped to vote on Wednesday but on Monday night, after a 5 hour meeting, we had still not finished enough of the complex details and decided to delay. Once the committee has voted, the same five MEPs will then start the 3 way trialogue negotiations with the European Council and the European Commission to see if agreement can be reached. This is the sort of legislation that is massively criss-crossed with red lines - the detail really is devilish. 

In my opinion far too much power is given to the Parliament. I very often I find myself in disagreement with the majority of MEPs. But I also know that, by being in the room, sometimes I manage to move the direction of pieces of text.   On Monday night, for example, whilst I was battling on bank recoveries, my colleague Ashley Fox MEP was standing in for me and defending key UK interests of mortgage regulation.  If the British Conservatives had not been in the room on those negotiations for the past year we would have ended up with an EU ban on Buy-to-Let mortgages, many first time buyer mortgages and shared equity loans. 

Yes, the EU legislates far too much, yes much of what the EU does should be left to national legislation - but as long as we are in the EU it is vital that UK MEPs turn up for meetings.  And if one day the UK leaves the EU then we will still need to find a way to make sure that UK interests are protected.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Just one vote really can make a difference.

Whilst out canvassing for the Council elections one of our helpers said he wished he knew more about what happens in the European Parliament.  I have promised to restart writing the Blog more regularly.

Votes in the EP can be very close.   On Thursday we won a vote of the 754 members just 7.    It does feel good when ones own vote make a difference, especially as the difference was due to the handful of Conservative MEPs who travelled back to Strasbourg late the night before after attending the  extra-ordinarily powerful funeral of Lady Thatcher - everyone will have their own moments of that day, mine was the total stillness of the congregation as Elgar’s Nimrod floated across the cathedral as the close of the service.

Thursday’s vote stopped an EU tax on Ship owners.  Even my 11 year old son pointed out that ships move, if we tax them when registered in Europe they will use non EU ports.    

Over two years ago we lost a vote in Committee on a similarly crazy EU tax proposal.  We lost that one by just one vote.  I remain furious that the UK UKIP MEP on the committee left an empty chair in the room that day, as he so often does.  We could have stopped this whole battle years ago if UKIP had turned up to vote.  The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), if set unilaterally in Europe will cause financiers to relocate their transactions, but pensioners, businesses and small investors who can not move overseas will be left paying the bill.  George Osborne was right to veto it at the EU level.  Now proposals from 11 other countries seek to impose it again - and the new structure will push up the cost of borrowing for companies and governments.  UK borrowing is already too high, the last thing we need is extra costs.   So I am delighted with the decision that the UK is going to take the EU to court over this crazy tax proposal.  

I’ve just had a great couple of days knocking on doors with local candidates for the up-coming County Council election.  I’ve been out and about in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Essex in the past 2 weeks.   The feedback from our campaigners is actually extremely positive.   Yes there are bound to be mid term blues, and there are patchy challenges from what I call the “so-called-independents-who-used-to-be-affiliated-with-mainstream-parties-but-were-not-reselected-usually-because-they-didn't-do-any-work”.  Yes there are a few more UKIP candidates and there are a few glossy posters, but my feedback from the doorsteps suggests that blue East Anglia is definitely not Eastleigh.  These are local elections, and it is important to vote.

This was all beautifully summed up in a blog by Cllr Nick Clarke, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council yesterday.

In Norfolk on Friday I took a break from campaigning to catch up with Cromer Crab fisherman and local district councillor John Lee.   He puts out to sea single handed before dawn every morning to lift over 100 crab pots.  He then works through the day to cook and process the crabs, before racing to Council meetings.   As a volunteer he chairs the Fisheries local action group in North Norfolk.  John has been one of the experts who has taught me so much about the need to reform fishing policy - it felt so good when we voted to end fish discards recently.  However, I was concerned to hear that money which has been promised to support our small boat fleets, like the Cromer crabmen, is being tied up in Brussels red tape.  I’ve promised to investigate.  

John explained how as a district councillor he has helped 3,000 local residents form an Energy Club to buy gas and electricity.  This is saving each household roughly £10 a month on bills.  Good Councillors really can make a difference - they are worth voting for on May 2.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Unscrambling the EU accounts

Last week I travelled to Luxembourg to meet the UK member of the EU court of auditors with my colleague Ashley Fox, MEP for the South West.   For the last 18 years the accounts have not had a clean audit.  The EU budget is tax payers’ money, much of it from British purses.  Continually failing audits is unacceptable.  Whether or not this can be sorted out will be a big question in an EU referendum.

Since 2011 the auditors have had no problems with the accounts themselves i.e. the sums do add up.  The problems are  in the underlying payments where “too many are affected by error”.   Auditors estimate that 3.9% of payments do not comply with EU rules i.e. nearly double the 2% level which auditors usually consider “tolerable”.   

The “errors” are invariably not in the money being spent by EU central institutions payments but tend to be how funds are spent in each of the 27 different countries.    

Some examples feel downright fraudulent (payments to look after sheep when no sheep exist) others are mis-interpretation of sometimes complicated rules (a bridge was built but the procurement rules were not followed).  

Value for Money is a different issue. Even if payments have “no error” it does not always follow that the money has been well spent  (that new bridge, does it actually lead to anywhere?). On the other hand there are many examples of spending by EU institutions which pass the audit but are downright wasteful, take the Strasbourg Parliament. 

One East Anglian constituent with first hand experience  wrote “one sometimes had the feeling that once a budget had been allocated it was to be spent”.  This is especially true where money has been pre-allocated to a country or region.  

Furthermore, if we in the East of England have a high priority local project we would  expect our local councillors and MPs to try to do all they can to get the cash out of Brussels to pay for it rather than use local budgets.  Stretching and even breaking funding rules doesn’t just happen in olive belt governments, the UK has been guilty too. 

Currently the only sanction leads to the entire EU Commission being forced to resign, as happened in 1999.  Whilst I and UK Conservatives vote annually for this, the majority of MEPs feel this is too heavy a sanction and vote against.  

What is to be done?  Various EU commissioners suggest increasing the “tolerable” level to make the audit easier to pass.  This would not solve the problems.  

Ideally I would like a root and branch review, reducing the budget to limited areas where international collaboration actually adds value.   But if I can’t get that, then I recommend  to Simplify, Scrutinise and Sanction.

Simplify rules so it is very clear what should be eligible for funding and what is not.  

Scrutiny powers should be given to local MPs or Councillors so money has the same level of care as if funds came from the local council or national budget.  

Sanctions need to be improved so that they are used and targeted.  One reform could  be to give individual Commissioners responsibility for their own department’s spending like in the UK.   

Finally, we shouldn’t shoot the messenger, but we need to listen more carefully to their message and take action.