Newsletter Edition 36
Catastrophe - Home and Away
Welcome to 2005! Much has happened since I last wrote to you before Christmas, the most important of which, of course, was the Asian Earthquake and its dreadful results. My Tory colleague, Nirj Deva MEP, is Sri Lankan by birth and was on the 9th floor of a seaside hotel when the sea rose against humanity. His experience as a former MP and his current contacts have proved invaluable in the European Parliament and he has led the debate on behalf of both the Conservative party and the whole Centre-Right Group. His thoughtful and impassioned speech in a debate on his Motion moved many Members and strengthened the desire of MEPs across the spectrum to press both the Commission and the Council of Ministers to act urgently and generously. Except that is, for UKIP, who, almost alone, abstained in offering support and encouragement to the suffering survivors.
Closer to home were the Cumbrian floods in January. I was astonished and shocked by the suddenness and depth of the water levels and the devastating effects upon local farmers and householders. My enquiries ascertained that all that could be done was being done by the various authorities but I offered what support I could and I am ready if needed.
No. 2 - again!
I was re-elected as Deputy Leader of the British Tory MEPs in December but we have a new Leader in Timothy Kirkhope. He is a former MP, Whip and Home Office Minister, so very experienced. He follows Jonathan Evans, who has done an excellent job for three years and wishes now to "see more of his family"!
A present for the departing Leader of our Delegation
There was a major Parliamentary occasion upon our return after Christmas, when the proposed Constitution was voted upon. All but one of our Tory delegation is opposed to the whole scheme of things but, in the event, there was a huge majority in favour (+500 to +120). That was entirely predictable but what really annoyed the opponents was the celebration party which was held - to the tune of £150,000 of taxpayers' money - involving bathing the Parliament in lights, free invitations to journalists from all over the European Union and endless food, drink and music. At the best, singularly inappropriate, at worst, a scandalous abuse of the neutrality of the Parliament building.
I went to the first 2005 meeting of the North West Regional Assembly a few days ago. It was good to see our Leadership, Les Byrom, Paul Findlow, John Walsh et al, in sparkling and effective form and satisfying for me to hear at the preceding Tory Group meeting, that most Council Leaders present were firmly of the view that this nonsensical progeny of John Prescott has had its day. Whilst "Two Jags" insists that the NWDA shall have a planning role which could interfere with Councils' freedom of action, we must keep a watching brief. But I agree most strongly with the Group suggestion that all Tory-controlled Councils should give immediate Notice to Quit and that hung Councils could at least discuss a Motion to that effect. Conservatives should encourage the reconstitution of the North West Local Government Association and the abolition of the useless, but costly, Regional Assembly.
Hundreds of members of the Women's Institute came to Brussels last week as part of their campaign in favour of the Commission plans to register and licence all chemicals in production in the EU. Industry takes a contrary view to the Commission, believing the proposals to be hugely bureaucratic, requiring many more experiments on animals and an unnecessary duplication of effort. The ladies are very concerned about toxic chemicals in human blood, particularly when passed from mother to child, and the effects on the environment. So it is now up to MEPs to find an acceptable compromise.
With some of the WI
Barrow Boys & Girls
I have taken over responsibility from Lord Inglewood for a regular annual visit to Parliament by Barrow 6th Form College. About thirty or so young people come to Strasbourg each year, most (!) in a spirit of enquiry, and almost the entire complement of North West MEPs turns out to meet and talk to them. This year was no exception and it was as instructive as always to learn from our younger constituents what they consider to be the issues of the day. "Europe" certainly is well down their agenda - they simply care nothing for the disputes and debates that fixate the older generation - but rather environmental, educational and lifestyle matters are at the forefront of their interests.
Talking to the students
I was saddened to learn of the sudden death before Christmas of Robert Hodge - County, District and Parish Councillor in Tarleton, Lancashire, and a former Leader of the Tory Group on the first two. I last saw him at the County Group Christmas Party when he was in relaxed and humorous form. I counted him as a wise and experienced friend and his community and the County of Lancashire will miss him very much. Saluté.
I do have to admit that Prince Harry was more than a little thoughtless in his choice of fancy-dress last month but cannot help wondering whether there would have been as much media-inspired fuss if the symbol had been a hammer & sickle. Stalin was every bit as much an evil monster as Hitler, after all. And now there is a ridiculous suggestion by some self-important new Commissioner that the swastika should be banned throughout the EU. Completely unenforceable and wholly impractical though this would be, let alone an attack on a religious symbol precious to Hindus for 5000 years, surely banning it will only encourage those who would misuse it to claim it as a touchstone of their appalling political credo.
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to our centre-right Group Meeting recently and it was fascinating to watch a contemporary of Margaret Thatcher perform. He is a large physical presence and clearly greatly revered by German Conservatives. I agreed with much of what he had to say about the state of the world, until he started lecturing us on the necessity of the Euro and the new Constitution. And I was not alone! But a towering figure nonetheless.
Flying for Britain!
I have been part of two visiting aviation lobbies over the last week or two. First, Manchester Airport executives came to Brussels to discuss a number of issues, largely to do with Commission proposals over reform of the "slots" - the time allocations for departing and arriving aircraft. This is a vital issue for airlines and airports, since it affects the quality and variety of service on offer to the potential passenger and is quite controversial. As a regular user, I was also able to make the odd critical point about the airport. For instance, why is Manchester's baggage retrieval system so slow, particularly in comparison to every other airport that I use? And why cannot Duty/Tax-free shops be in the Arrival rather than the Departure Lounge - thus avoiding security dangers and excess weight, let alone the sheer inconvenience, of carrying glass bottles on a flight? The Manchester lobbyists are reviewing the situation.
Second, British Airways, in the person of Rod Eddington, the airline's Chief Executive. He is an impressive figure within the industry and he wanted to talk to Transport Committee MEPs about a variety of concerns. The relationship with the USA was the most important item on his agenda, whether in connection with the Airbus/Boeing battle or the "open skies" policy which the Commission hopes will encourage greater competition on North Atlantic routes. I discussed with him the requirement to improve customer relations and especially the need to have more staff at check-in, departure gates and, above all, on the telephone. (I waited 56 minutes the other day to make a booking!) He recognised the urgent need for improvement and assured us that we would notice beneficial changes within the next few weeks. We shall see!
Support for the candidates
John Major honoured a long-standing commitment to come to Cheadle last month (Lib majority +33) and I was pleased to be there with him to support our PPC (and ex-MP) Stephen Day and the PPC for Hazel Grove, Cllr Alan White.
John Major at Cheadle
I also supported the PPC for Barrow & Furness, Bill Dorman, at an Association Race-Night recently.
With Jack Richardson & Bill Dorman
More nonsense from UKIP. Not only did their MEPs abstain on assistance for the Asian Earthquake victims but they voted against a motion of support for the new democratic Government in the Ukraine. They are quite happy to behave like silly children in waving flags and blowing raspberries in the Chamber but now they have lost their "star player", Robert Kilroy-Slick. He has taken his bat home, resigned from UKIP altogether and announced that he will set up a new Party called "Veritas" (Latin for truth, would you believe!) I think it would be better labelled "Vanitas"! But even he said, upon departing, "UKIP is regarded by all those outside as a joke. The party is an empty vessel...and I am embarrassed by the people they are associated with". I couldn't have put it better myself!