Newsletter Edition 42
A Wasted Opportunity.
January 1st saw a change of Presidency in the European Union, Britain handing over to Austria for the next six months. The general consensus, across the political spectrum, is that the United Kingdom's time at the helm was a wasted opportunity. Fine words from Blair - as usual - but little or no delivery, especially on overdue reforms of CAP, the Budget and the structure of the EU. But then I recall suggesting last June that this was exactly what would happen and I gain no pleasure - indeed rather embarrassment - from saying "I told you so!" Having said all that, Dr Schussel, the Austrian Chancellor, made one of the most pro-federalist, pro-constitution and pro-EU tax speeches that I have ever heard when introducing his Presidency. I cannot see much common ground there in meeting his country's objectives.
Dr Schussel, the Austrian Chancellor
Equitable Life Assurance.
ELIC (Equitable Life Investigative Committee) was set up in early January and had its first meeting at the end of the month. It is time-limited and will run for just one year, so there will be a great deal to do in a relatively short time. This special committee, instituted at my behest, is a very rare occurrence and will investigate the claims of a million or so policy holders who feel that they have been cheated by the company and let down by the British Government and European Commission. We will take evidence, demand explanations from relevant Ministers and Officials and probably visit the Petitioners in the countries most affected, i.e. Ireland, Germany and, of course, the United Kingdom. It remains to be seen what we will be able to achieve on behalf of EU citizens.
I noticed a news story the other day suggesting that the 100 or so Heritage Railways operating in the UK would effectively be put out of commission as a result of a Rail Safety Directive passed in the last Parliament. Rather unsurprisingly, from my perspective, it turns out to be incorrect and is yet another example of blaming the EU for something which is actually being implemented by the British Government. There is a Rail Safety Directive - and long overdue was its arrival - but it is the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which is "gold-plating" the terms of the legislation and taking its interpretation to the absolute extreme. Needless to say, no other EU State is experiencing similar problems and I have asked my Westminster colleagues, with interests in transport matters, to pursue the real culprit - the HSE - rather than blaming the usual whipping-boy.
I was also provoked by the ridiculous story in some newspapers about the EU banning the "pinta." This was, and is, completely untrue, it was never on the Commission agenda, there is no such directive and those editors with an anti - European agenda should at least get their facts straight before they make up fictitious headlines.
Do our local Councils have a Future?
I went to the North West Regional Assembly meeting last month, largely to support our Conservative Councillors at their pre-meeting. We all agreed that this Socialist nonsense has to be scrapped but, of course, as long as we are not in Government, we have to participate in order to protect our respective Council Taxpayers. Some Councils, such as Cheshire and Trafford, are withdrawing completely. This is entirely understandable, indeed desirable, but it does leave Tory Councillors on opposition Councils in a difficult position. That is why I suggested that we should set up a shadow North West Local Government Association, which should be run on a professional basis, providing well-researched policy guidance and statistical information, and acting as a resource for Councillors and a counterblast to our opponents in the media. I spoke to Eric Pickles MP, the Shadow Local Government Minister, during his recent visit to Strasbourg and he backed the idea wholeheartedly. I stand ready to assist if I can be of any use but I would hope that senior Council Group Leaders might set the ball rolling. All this becomes even more important in the face of the proposed changes to Local Government promulgated by that intellectual heavyweight, John Prescott. Assisted this time by a keener political mind in David Milliband MP, the Deputy Prime Minister is determined to destroy the Council structure in the region, with special emphasis on the Shire counties and suburban/rural Boroughs. In other words Tory Territory. And astonishingly, even for this interfering, dictatorial Government, they are trying to do away with the elections in 2007. This lot could teach Russia's President Putin a thing or two about control-freakery! We must resist these plans in their entirety and not be divided across neighbouring councils as to future options. That is precisely what Labour wants.
I did my bit at two local by-elections last month, with mixed success. Nick Stratford won back a seat in Prestbury (Macclesfield) from Independents, but Kate Birtwhistle just failed to take Leftwich & Kingsmead (Vale Royal). Congratulations to both candidates on excellent campaigns
Leftwich and Kingsmead (Vale Royal)
Open Markets - Just…!
The last session in Strasbourg has been obsessed with one of the most important pieces of legislation ever to come before Parliament. It is called the Services Directive and has been driven through Committee and Plenary by British Conservative MEPs, with support from EPP-ED colleagues. It begins to liberalise the whole basis of business activity in the EU by starting to remove unjustifiable barriers to cross-border trade and cutting the miles of red tape which are so prevalent in countries like France. The Directive is by no means perfect and we believe that it can and should go a great deal further, but it is hugely controversial in the Member States operating "social market economies", as opposed to "free market economies" (like the UK). Trade Unionists in their thousands have been protesting in France, Belgium and Germany etc. and left-wing politicians throughout the EU have campaigned bitterly against it. But the centre-right forced through a compromise with a clear majority and we must now keep up the pressure on the Commission to implement it quickly and completely. It will change the way that business is done throughout the EU and provide huge opportunities for British companies, large and small.
An Early Start!
I enjoyed a wonderful breakfast at a heathenly early hour last week in order to speak at the Breakfast Business Club, which meets at the Marriot Hotel near Preston. About thirty local businessmen and women were present, most of whom were operating their own small firms. They were all phenomenally enthusiastic about their activities, swapping potential customer information and advice, and I was greatly impressed at the professionalism that abounded. They were very interested in an MEP's role and many told me that they believed in making Europe work, for them and for Britain. These entrepreneurs were a real breath of fresh air and I came away imbued with a sense of optimism and much bacon & egg.
Don't forget the past.
There has been a potent and emotional exhibition in Parliament recently, commemorating those murdered in the concentration camps, especially the Romany community in Auschwitz. I visited that hellhole when a Minister and I still find it difficult to understand the fanatically-organised wickedness that developed and operated such a place. If nothing else, the exhibition served to emphasise the value of sixty-one years of relative peace in Europe.
Conservative MEPs were delighted to welcome William Hague, our new Shadow Foreign Secretary, to Brussels recently, accompanied by North West Tory MP, Graham Brady, Shadow Europe Minister. Over dinner and in our Delegation meeting, there was a productive and informative exchange of views, not least about our relationship with the EPP-ED in Parliament. William and Graham then held a series of discussions with a wide range of potential allies for the new Parliamentary Grouping that is envisaged by David Cameron. Time, as well as a detailed examination of the backgrounds of some of them, will tell whether anything productive might ensue. I have my doubts, but we are doing all we can to help.
Hague and Brady talk to Tory MEPs