Newsletter Edition 38
With the Parliamentary Recess upon us, it is time to take stock - both of activities in Brussels and Strasbourg as well as at Westminster. The Petitions Committee has been extremely busy - firstly with longstanding petitions from Members of Lloyds who have lost everything and believe Lloyds to have deceived them, secondly with British (and other Member State) house-owners in Southern Spain whose homes have been altered, wrecked or confiscated as a result of an arcane Valencian law and, thirdly and imminently, aggrieved policy-holders of the ill-fated Equitable Life Assurance Company. And that’s just the British contribution to the Committee work! (Click here for Lloyds press release)
You may have read something of the ‘Sally B’ World War II B17 bomber (which featured in the film “Memphis Belle”) and which was grounded as a result of a recent EU Directive. I was approached by Peter Greenhill (of the Cumbria auctioneers), a keen aviation buff, to do something about it. I made contact with an old friend of mine from Northern Ireland days, Sir Roy McNulty, now Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, who confirmed that the ‘Sally B’ could no longer fly without meeting a huge increase in insurance which was well beyond the means of the charitable volunteers who cared for the aircraft. The commendable objective of the Directive is to protect people from aviation accidents caused by aircraft crashing into urban areas which, apart from the inherent tragedies, cost millions in liability payments. However nobody - least of all the British Government - spotted the fine print which included the tiny number of veteran aircraft flying a few hours each year, like the ‘Sally B’. I have managed to obtain some temporary relief, to allow this old campaigner to take to the air this summer, but the battle goes on to open a special loophole for these unique aeroplanes. Watch this airspace! (Click here for ‘Sally B’ news)
I am the middleman in a row between two independent agencies of the EU, the Ombudsman and OLAF (the Anti-Fraud Office). The former reports to my Committee and, as the Co-ordinator of the largest political group, I have to take the lead in resolving the dispute. Since the argument is about lying, deceit, misleading information and lack of co-operation, you can imagine that tempers are running high and blood is likely to splatter the carpet!
We have just completed a major debate and vote on computer software patents, which has exercised constituents more than somewhat. All MEPs have been inundated with letters and e-mails from large and small operations, both for and against the Commission proposals. The issue is far too technical to explain here - even supposing I understood the whole argument - but the collective view of the Parliament was that the whole proposal had become so amended, altered and ruined that the result was a complete bodge and should be thrown out, neck and crop.
MEPs have, at long last, voted to reform the MEPs’ Statute, the formal name for our pay and rations. British Tories have been at the forefront of the campaign to review and re-order the chaotic and unacceptable expenses system prevalent in the Parliament and we are, relatively, pleased at the improvement. All expenditure will have to be claimed by producing proper bills and there will be a constituency mileage element so as to abolish the situation whereby MEPs are forced to use the “surplus” on air travel to cover constituency travel. However, the important link between MPs and MEPs - whereby we receive an identical salary and pension package - will be broken. MEPs’ pay will be reduced by about £6000 p.a. and we will be paid in Euros rather than Sterling, neither of which proposals particularly appeal.
The UK Presidency of the EU commenced on July 1st and Tony Blair came to Parliament at the end of June to address MEPs and to lay out his plans for the British six-month tenure. I would have had to admit that the Prime Minister was at his brilliant best, were it not for the fact that we Tories have heard it all before and like the British people, know that what Blair says - however plausible - is entirely different from what Blair does. He followed the Luxembourg Prime Minister, who achieved a standing ovation even before he spoke (on the basis that he had tried to broker a compromise and that Britain had stopped it) and the initial reception was subdued hostility. But Blair pressed all the right buttons and pulled all the right levers and, at the finish of his speech, had the Centre-Right majority eating out of his hand. Ironically, the Left were somewhat unhappy and the French incandescent. If the Prime Minister does what he says, Conservatives will support him but past experience suggests that he will not and then we will hold him and his Ministers to account.
Tory MEPs have been watching the shenanigans at Westminster with as much bemusement as every other member of the Conservative Party and we too have a view about the rules. I have argued for some time that MEPs should be part of the leadership selection process - for two good reasons. Firstly, we are nationally elected on a manifesto agreed by the Party Leader and, secondly, we represent the whole of the UK, region by region, in a way not possible by our MPs. For example, we have a mere 9 Tory MPs in the North West out of 76 constituencies but we three Tory MEPs represent all the remaining 67 seats. The Delegation Leader is pressing our cause with the Board of the Party as well as with the 1922 Committee. Sir Robert's views on the Leadership
In the meantime, I have no problems with the Leadership Candidates laying out their philosophies and policies. After the General Election is the ideal time to review the past and think about the future, especially since we must get it right this time. I am glad that Michael Howard is running his retirement long and have no fears that the right candidate will be able to restore morale, cohesion and resolve after his election. But who is the right candidate? I have expressed my views in an earlier letter so my choice will become obvious when the election proper commences. However, let us make sure that enmities are not created and that divisions are only temporary, for it is essential that the winner creates a team of all the talents after the contest is over.
I was sitting in a packed Chamber when the result of the Olympic Games vote filtered through to MEPs. I have slightly mixed views about the London Bid, since I was the Sports Minister at the start of the first Manchester Bid and I know just how much the Olympics could cost the taxpayer. But I admit to a real frisson of pleasure at seeing the looks on some French faces. Not very “communitaire” I know, but my sensible French colleagues blame President Chirac for getting just about everything wrong over the last few months. And remember it was a Tory Peer (Seb Coe) who led the Bid Campaign and we are bound to have a Tory Government by 2012!
Like many British colleagues, I was touched by the large number of MEPs, of all nationalities and all parties, who made a point of expressing their views about the terrible bombs in London. They offered strong support for the British people, coupled with sadness at the deaths and injuries, and a steely resolve to co-operate, in any way possible, with investigators and security services. The only way to deal with these barbarians is to give them no publicity and carry on as though nothing has happened. They will NOT break the British spirit.
I was sorry to see that Stephen Day just failed to win back Cheadle last Thursday. He has been a tireless worker for the Constituency for many years and he deserves our warm thanks for such a sterling fight.
Sir Edward Heath was Leader and then Prime Minister during my formative years in the Conservative Party and I always found him ready and willing to hear what Young Conservatives had to say. His deep commitment to Europe, following his war service, attracted and stirred me and most of my friends at the time and his courageous confrontation with Enoch Powell over the Ugandan Asians demonstrated his integrity and tolerant approach to people in trouble. We shared a regiment - the Honourable Artillery Company - although he rose through the ranks to be a full Colonel and I was a mere Territorial private, and he was hugely proud of the traditions of the oldest regiment in the British Army. I shall miss him, grumpiness and all, and am proud to have served with him in the House of Commons.
Enjoy the Summer Holidays.