Newsletter Edition 61
I hope that everyone enjoyed the Christmas holiday despite the gloomy economic news and that you read my annual leaflet with avidity! I know that many did because I received hundreds of tear-off slips with a caption for this year’s photograph (taken, incidentally, at the top of the Waterloo Monument near Brussels). The winner was Cllr Marion Downes of Horwich who, as a teetotaller, declined the champagne and received a bunch of flowers instead. Her caption was, “Get off your pedestal Gordon, everyone’s gone home!”
There was a particularly fascinating meeting in Bolton last week where, under the auspices of Saj Karim MEP, David Cameron addressed a diverse audience of some 1300 people from all the different ethnic communities in the NW. I had expected a few hundred but the massive numbers present were indicative of the feeling that Cameron is on his way to No. 10 and they wanted to know a bit more about him. It was a great success and bodes well for the European as well as the General Election.
Two more appearances in the Parliament for the great and the good in December - first Sir Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, and then the Dalai Lama, for the third time in as many years. They followed other religious dignitaries who have addressed MEPs on philosophical and cultural matters in recent months and were both highly articulate, amusing and relevant.
President Sarkozy wound up the French Presidency of the EU just before Christmas in his own inimitable way, laying claim to French leadership of everything of importance in the EU, and made it quite clear that he would cheerfully carry on France’s “leadership” through the Czech Presidency and any other country’s that did not accept his views on the future. He is a self-important jack-in-the-box!
There was a celebration in Parliament of ten years of the Euro this week, with much razzmatazz and back-patting by those who participate. Giscard d’ Estaing, Delors and other continental luminaries made speeches at great length and it was left to Conservative Leader, Timothy Kirkhope MEP, to remind Members that Britain had no intention whatever of doing away with the Pound.
Inevitably Gaza and its dreadful humanitarian problems came up for debate and, of course, there were differing views expressed. I have been consistent in my criticisms of Zionism throughout my Parliamentary career - as well as the actions of the Palestinians - and I made it quite clear that I believe that the Israeli Government has acted wholly disproportionately. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Mrs. Livni, came to the Foreign Affairs Committee just before Christmas and I questioned her thoroughly on the illegal settlements on the West Bank and the closure of access points for Gaza residents. I never received a satisfactory response. I am now particularly incensed by the use of phosphorus bombs - against the Geneva Convention - and the recent barring of Israeli Arabs from participating in the forthcoming elections to the Knesset. The Ceasefire must be on the basis of the United Nations Resolution and then medical, fuel and other necessities of life restored to the Gaza Strip as a matter of extreme urgency.
Let there be light!
I have begun to receive numerous letters and emails about light bulbs. Incandescent bulbs - those we have been using for decades - are being phased out by the industry now and the EU Commission has set a final deadline of 2016. It is all supposed to be on environmental grounds but I remain unpersuaded, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are many people with sight disabilities who cannot cope with the new version. Secondly, the present bulbs give off some heat which is a bonus for elderly people in cold weather. Thirdly, disposal of the new lights is not easy as they contain mercury. And finally, there are people - and I am one - who use dimmer switches or have picture lights which the new bulbs cannot replace. Tory MEPs have explained all this to the Commission and have insisted that no final action is taken on the issue until the difficulties are resolved.
I have just returned from a fascinating Foreign Affairs meeting which involved our Polish Chairman conducting a debate between the Chief Executives of the Russian and Ukrainian Gas Companies. Both were wholly unapologetic, stubbornly opining that the other was at fault for the energy crisis in a freezing winter. MEPs from all parties and countries were severely critical of both, although the Russian copped most of the flak. Despite his protestations that this was just a commercial spat, it is quite clear that Putin’s Government is behind the restrictions just because of pique over Ukraine’s dalliance with the EU and NATO. Both representatives were told in no uncertain terms by our Chairman to resolve the problems immediately.
The UK Parliamentary Ombudsman presented herself to the Petitions Committee recently to talk about her detailed and critical Report on the Equitable Life debacle. HMG promised a full response last Autumn, then before Christmas and eventually made a statement last week. Brown’s embarrassment, as Chancellor and Prime Minister, has been compounded by the strength of the criticism in the Ombudsman’s Report but, even yet, HMG still tries to wriggle out from under. The proposed tribunal is another delay when guilt should be admitted and compensation paid. I am glad that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has added his weight to the demands for recompense to those policy-holders who suffered as a direct result of the joint incompetence of the Company, the Financial Regulator and the Government. It remains to be determined at what level the compensation will be set but a recognition of the failures of all concerned would be a start - although much more is required.
Czech PM, Mirek Topolanek, addressed Parliament at the commencement of his country’s Presidency of the EU. I never cease to be stirred by the leaders of states, formerly under the Soviet yoke and without democratic freedom, now speaking openly and freely about the issues of the day. Of course, they value the process highly but we British, free for centuries, do tend to take these things for granted. The Czechs are our closest allies in Parliament - we vote from the same whip and we converse daily on policies - and it was a real pleasure to see the sense of achievement and pride on the faces of Czech MEPs of all parties.
Despite Conservative attempts to prevent it, Parliament has voted in support of an extensive ban on certain pesticides. Whilst we are in favour of improving the quality and safety of these chemicals, the Commission proposal will be detrimental to British horticultural and agricultural interests in the short term. It is essential that the Government constructs a blocking minority in the Council of Ministers, but it does not show much evidence of wanting to bother.