Monday, 14 December 2009

Nuclear and Budgets

I am writing this on the long train to Strasbourg. Leaving home at 7.45 am on a Monday morning I will get to my desk about 5.30 pm this evening – when I started this job there was a direct flight from City Airport but since that has been stopped I have been trying out the train route via Paris. Whilst I moan a lot, it uses less energy than flying (mentally as well as fuel wise) and a good chance to catch up on reading the wedge of papers in my case measures up to about 5 inches.

I have found that the Copenhagen summit has been a good time to focus on Energy use. Last week I joined a group from the European Parliament to visit one of Belgium’s nuclear power stations. In Belgium over 50% of electricity comes from nuclear power and given the UK’s recent commitment to replacing our Nuclear power station I thought it would be useful to see how it works in a country that is so nuclear dependent.

It really was a once in a lifetime experience. The plant was on shut down whilst having its massive steam generators replaced so we were allowed to go right into the heart of the operations. “Kicking the tyres” on a site visit is incredibly helpful. I had gone with 3 questions in mind – Security, Safety, and what to do with the Waste. Security was tight, I eventually lost count of the number of secure locks that I passed through. I expected Safety procedures to be very high – they were, we were each scanned for radiation many times on the way in and out to absolutely make sure that no one risked exposure – it was interesting to learn that there are actually more incidents of over exposure to radiation in the medical world than in the power arena due to medical applications like radiotherapy. However our guide left us in no doubt that politicians need to be very focused on the Waste issue. Even if no more power stations were ever to be built, nuclear waste exists today. Decisions need to be made and we learnt a lot about the options but it was quite depressing that even on this very detailed opportunity to visit a plant just an hour from the Parliament only two MEPs had joined the tour group.

This week in Strasbourg we will be voting on the EU budget. It is incredibly frustrating that there appears to be very little concern in the European Parliament for keeping costs under control. The budget has increased considerably from its initial drafts back in September – for some good reasons – but it appears that the amendments are always upwards and never down. At a time when our national finances are under such strain I would have thought Brussels could tighten its belt.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Not all so sunny in Spain – and busy in Brussels

I spent the last two days of this week in Spain with a group of MEPs considering Economic Affairs. Unemployment in Spain has rocketed to nearly 20%. Whilst the country’s temporary workers are almost all not working , the unionised permanent workers have negotiated large wage rises. In an early morning walk around the block I saw a person wrapped in a blanket holding out a paper cup begging on nearly every doorstep.

The traffic was terrible – the governments “fiscal stimulus” (i.e. spending money) seems to be paying for relaying of pavements everywhere, and everyday travellers were often brought to a halt by siren blasting motorcades of visiting politicians preparing for Spain to take over the rolling presidency of the European Union next month.

Our own bus (with no outriders) took us to meet the Central Bank as well as insurance and market regulators, the employers' union (CBI equivalent) the bankers' association and Spain’s largest bank Santander. Despite their economic woes Spain survived the financial crash well thanks to their conservative regulatory approach in recent years. Part of our visit was to discuss the new European Authorities for financial services that have been causing in Brussels a stir in the UK press this week. Unanimously the Spanish experts said that whilst the European wide Authorities will be helpful for sharing information and setting guidelines they also stated firmly that regulation of individual financial institutions should remain a national concern not an EU concern.

Back at home people have asked me why my office in Brussels and Strasbourg are so busy. Part of this is because of the new group that the Conservatives have helped form in the Parliament. The committee structure of the EP means that every bit of legislation is scrutinised in detail by one member from each political group. Whereas before the Conservatives sat within the very large EPP with over 200 members now our group is 54 members. This means we have a much stronger voice and can be involved in every issue.

My own office is leading on the new European Banking Authority, Bank Capital (yes and bonuses) and new rules to tighten up on Tax havens. Through my second committee I am looking at dodgy drugs (well actually counterfeit medicines) and we have recently completed work on Energy requirements for buildings – helping to bring the rest of the EU close to UK standards. I am also helping colleagues with their scrutiny of legislation on alternative investments, which if we get it wrong will have a huge impact not only on UK pensions but on investments in innovative start-ups and in developing countries. The devil is in the detail on all of this with sometimes hundreds of amendments proposed by the parliament to any given paper – it’s fascinating, stimulating and yes sometimes a mountain of paper work.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Is the EU hiding debate on its accounts...

I have been a bit rushed off my feet over the past fortnight in manning the front line in Europe (with a stinking cold) but I thought I had to blog about today.

This morning there was the open debate about the court of auditors opinion on last year's EU accounts. As I sat listening in the chamber it was clear that whilst some members are willing to brush aside the controversial issue of 15 years of "qualified" accounts, there were also members from all parties with strong and critical views. There were also a number of suggestions of how the situation could be improved. Many others made good suggestions of areas they think could be improved. I heard socialists, liberals, greens, centre-rightists raise questions that deserve answers. No time was given for answers.

Is the EU trying to hide the MEP's voices in this debate?

The first thing that raised my (now very cynical) antennae is that the debate on the accounts happened today whereas the vote was yesterday. (I voted against). The second issue is just how long the secretariat of the parliament took to post the video on the website. Whereas normally the video record of parliament appears almost immediately - this debate took until the end of the day. Other debates have quite clear labelling on their subject matter but this debate is just labelled as "2008". Who will ever find this on a google search in years to come? Will our questions be answered or are they just being brushed under the carpet?

If you want to watch the whole debate you could spend hours searching the internet or you could perhaps find it here.. My contribution is about an hour in.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

From Fridges to the Future of Europe and Financial taxes

Britain’s next aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, due to enter service with the Royal Navy in 2016, is still years away from being completed, let alone battle ready. On Friday, in a damning testament to our defence procurement system, I saw the final touches being applied to the fridges that will stand in her galleys. As I stood at my own village war memorial this morning I listened to the familiar family names in the roll of honour and I wondered what our British soldiers in Afghanistan would think about the money that has been spent on un-needed fridges.

Actually I was very impressed by the fridge company. Based in deepest Norfolk they are Europe’s leaders in commercial refrigerators. Every product is hand finished and environmentally of the highest standards. Even with the recession their sales have held up – declines in domestic sales helped by increased exports especially to France and Germany. In a week when Britain has ceded so much control to Europe this reminded me that it was to help companies like this that we went into the common market in the first place. On the other hand the company also explained that the last thing they need is the “Agency Workers Directive” – the vast majority of their staff are permanant but to be competitive they need to employ agency staff when they have bigger orders. This was a real world example of the opt out of Employment law from Brussels is so important.

Negotiations in Brussels are often more complicated than they first seem. I have been looking at the plans to create new European Authorities for banks, financial markets and insurers. Everyone agrees that we need a new form of regulation and must not go back to the risk taking that led to the financial crisis. We need better ways to share information across borders and to manage not only national but global risks. But these new authorities potentially go much deeper – the current drafts cede powers from the FSA/Bank of England to Europe to manage emergency failures in the future. With Britain being home to the world largest financial centre and such a vast amount of British tax-payers’ money currently on the line with our banks I believe the current draft crosses a red line.

To date the principal has been upheld that if national taxpayers are affected then national regulators (not Europe) should make the decisions. Gordon Brown’s step this weekend to propose a “transaction tax” on all financial trades starts to move into a potential grey area. Whilst I totally agree that financial institutions need to show some austerity and pay back the tax payer for the pain they have caused, I also know that if trading is more expensive in Europe then financial market business will just be driven overseas. But if Europe starts to set up a “pool” for future bail outs then Europe will argue for central decision making and ultimately wrench control of financial institutions from National regulators. Is the UK really ready to see the Bank of England subservient to the European Central Bank, the European Commission, or majority votes of the other 26 member states?

It may be easy to brush Gordon’s proposal of a transaction or “Tobin” tax away as pre-election posturing (the first reactions from the US are so negative that it’s unlikely to happen globally and therefore maybe not at all) but it does open up the possibility of another set of very difficult negotiations with Brussels.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Unsexy Methane, Railways and more

I have been (rightly) told off for failing to boast on my blog about how delighted we are to get EU funding for the upgrade of the railway lines East West across the UK to allow freight to travel by rail not road. This is a project I have been working on for over a year, and since elected working very closely with my Conservative MEP colleagues Geoffrey van Orden and Robert Sturdy. The press release we put out last week is here. Its good news.

I’ve just had one of those luxury weeks when the parliament doesn’t meet and MEPs get a chance to catch up with their home issues. Yes it is a luxury to stay in one’s own bed for a week but it is not a week off!

In Essex I met up with Rebecca Harris who has appeared in recent newspapers for having an “unsexy interest in methane gas”. She is right. Rebecca is the Conservative Candidate for Castlepoint, a constituency that includes Canvey Island. The small Island has 45,000 residents, one exit route and a very large and now old gas storage plant. Many of the residents live within a mile of the plant. Post the disaster of the Buncefield fire residents are justified in asking questions about safety. Rebecca and I met local campaigners. They were very well informed. I have offered to raise the issues of safety as part of the debate that we will have on Gas Storage in the parliament this month. It is always good to be able to try to help a local issue.

In Cambridgeshire I visited yet another world leading organisation. The Welding Institute (TWI) was founded during WWII to investigate welding and joining material. I saw how they have been involved in everything from formula one cars, to heart by-passes, nuclear waste to gas rigs. It’s a superb institution at the forefront of real research – I hope that they are successful in their bid to expand.

I had a few days in London discussing finance – I am becoming concerned about the speed that some of the new legislation may rush through Brussels without real debate. In particular I have been looking at the plans for the new “European Banking Authority” – now I have no problems with sharing information between banking regulators and yes we do need a new system of regulation – but, digging into the detail, it appears to me that various national sovereign powers are being transferred over to Brussels and I am yet to be convinced that this is in the interest of taxpayers, savers or borrowers.

At the weekend I joined Conservatives from across all 58 Westminster constituencies of the East of England for a regional conference. The final session of the day was a talk from Joe Johnson, deputy editor of the FT. Inter alia, Joe pointed out that a 1% increase in the rate UK Gov pays on the National Debt costs £15 billion per year. That’s a hell of a lot of money. We need to get our debt burden down – not just because it is so high but because the ratings agencies are watching us and if we don’t investors will start demanding higher spreads. Food for thought as I sit on the Eurostar rushing back to Brussels – the spending capital of Europe.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Another Strasbourg Week

I have been told by some of the older MEPs that we new kids on the block have it lucky. "Just wait until the new Commission arrives, then you'll really see a Strasbourg voting list". They say.

Given that this week I have been asked to vote on everything from the death penalty in Iran - to coercive abortion - to dairy subsidies - to increased funding for EU embassies - to how many vehicles should be in the parliament car pool... I almost can't believe that it could get more varied.

The big vote of the week was to be the EU budget. I understand that every year the same charade is played out. The Commission proposes a budget, our national governments through the Council of Ministers reduce it and then the various committees of the European Parliament put it back up again. Many of the increases seem for very worthwhile causes, but at a time of economic crisis when our own workers are facing very constrained times I just could not bring myself to back the EU's bulging budget. Sadly the majority of MEPs didn't think the same way. We now go through another round of haggling before coming back to a second vote.

Just in case you want to know where my thoughts lay this week: I don't support a death penalty; I don't think women should be forced to have abortions against their will; I am very concerned about our dairy farmers (but we need to find a long term solution); I think it is shocking that the UK is reducing its embassies around the world while the EU is opening up its own (without giving the British people their vote on the Lisbon treaty); I don't think we need any more cars in the pool (the majority of MEPs agreed); I also voted to reduce MEP travel allowances by 25% (the majority disagreed).

This week constituents have been writing to me regarding shocking disclosures of how horses are treated on their way to slaughter (I agree that something must be done) and whether MEPs should have passes to the House of Commons (ideally yes, because we need to co-ordinate closely with our colleagues in the House of Commons and therefore have a great deal of business in the Palace of Westminster) but I pray that the BNP never get a vote in that parliament).

This week we have seen the UK entering its longest period of recession ever and across Europe unemployment is still rising. In the meantime the parliament is still arguing a lot about what caused the recession in the first place and spending tax payers' money like never before.

Sometimes its easy to understand why voters are disillusioned.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Damage limitation and a bit of match making...

"Its 95% damage limtitation and occasionally a bit of match making." These were the words of one of my experienced MEP colleagues when describing the work in his brussels office. As we travelled back towards London pouring over thick drafts of potential regulation and covered them with red ink it was very clear what he meant about the damage limitiation part of the work. MEP's can and do put forward ammendments on individual pieces of legislation. So we are often checking the fine detail of directives.

The match making part of the role is very satisfying. One meets so many people doing this job that sometimes it may be possible to introduce those with a problem to those with a potential solution.

Last week the Chambers of Commerce leaders from around the UK arrived in Brussels. Over a coffee a representative from the Midlands explained that some of her member companies in the building ceramics trade are being asked to pay for gas and electricity up to 6 months in advance. I understand that the recession means that utility companies could be wary of customers making bricks and tiles but this did seem an excessive payment to me. Later in the week a delegation from RBS arrived. They were very keen to tell me that RBS is trying to lend money to businesses that need it - and I told him about the brickmakers dilema. I was impressed that the gentleman from RBS was aware of the problem and that they were working on ways to help these companies. So I have swapped the business cards and hope that the matchmaking will find a solution to the problem.

Also in Brussels I learnt about plans to restructure the dreadful EU fishing quota system. Emails are now pinging back to friends in some of our Eastern ports to make sure that they get involved in the consultation.

Compassion in World Farming turned up to discuss long journeys taken by animals en route to slaughter. They make some excellent points. I hope their campaign for better "origin" labelling for meat products is sucessful. They explained that they would like a 8 hour maximum for all animal journeys - However a few hours later I met representatives from the thoroughbred breeders and racing industry. They explained that rules regarding transport for horses en route to slaughter would be totally inappropriate for thier mares, foals and racehorses. As there are around 7,000 people employed in horse related industries around Newmarket I do always try to understand their concerns.... yet another bit of red ink may be needed.

I find that these sorts of meeting make a welcome break from discussing banking and financial regulation - where my drafts of potential directives are now covered in red ink, comments and question marks.

Monday, 12 October 2009

A tale of two conferences

My carbon footprint has taken a bit of a battering over the past fortnight. Last week, in the middle of Conservative Party conference I left Manchester at 5am to hop back to Brussels for a debate on alternative investments. The week before I flew from Brussels to join a conference in Gothenburg (Sweeden).

In Gothenburg the masters of the European finance universe mustered. Central bankers, finance minisers, economists, regulators, "wise" men. We were locked in a complex outside the city from 8am 'til 11pm. So what did they debate? At no point did I hear employment or indeed unemployment mentioned, there was a (very) occasional cursory glance to Europe's ageing demographic and the pensions deficit, a few voices flickered on the public sector finances burden. BUT The weight of debating time surounded the proposed "Supervisory Architecture" of the EU banking system - committees of European central bankers and regulators that will meet to (perhaps) help pinpoint financial risks in the future. I returned home frustrated that so much energy had been spent on bureaucracy of the future rather than addressing the problems of today.

What a contrast then to Conservative Party conference where employment and debt was the key focus. George Osborne's speech was described by some comentators as brave - but no one doubts it was full of reality. Over the weekend I have had the chance to discuss with doctors and teachers George's policies on the public sector pay freeze and increasing the retirement age. Even the most left leaning doctor told me she thought these were acceptable suggestions if they help maintain jobs.

Back to Brussels today - by train this time - so at least I will feel a little less guilty for the planet.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Final thought for the weekend

All this week I have been talking to people back home in the UK who are already being asked for serious tightening of belts. From firefighters to universities.

Tomorrow I will go back to Brussels and into the bubble that seems to pretend that the real world simply does not exist. Over recent weeks each EP committee has proposed amendment after amendment of UPWARDS revisions to budgets.... with UK Tories usually in the minority saying "NO!".

Would the European Union just notch in its own belt a bit please.

A week at home....

Even though my journeys to Brussels are by Eurostar the carbon footprint of a travelling MEP is frightening - so its been good to spend a week back in the UK. Just before you believe that our "green weeks" are a total waste of time here are some of the things I've been doing.

Universities - I followed up on invitations to visit both Hertfordshire and Cambridge Universities - the former is an outstanding example of skills led education: close relationships with leading local and national businesses help them to direct courses towards real employment opportunities and students talked of the desire for close ties with its community. Cambridge University retains its world leading academic status. Its graduates are still sought after across the world (Indeed a Cambridge student will be joining my team for an internship next week). I heard their deep concerns over years of declining UK exam standards, and the need to raise funds especially to encourage world class PhD students to study in the UK.

Small businesses - the Federation of Small Businesses hosted 5 of the region's MEPs for an evening discussing many different issues. We all signed up to their campaign to stop French blockades of Channel Ports. I encouraged them to work through their members to help us highlight examples of EU red tape and UK gold plating - we need the ammunition from real companies to help us fight the battle on bureaucracy. Another issue raised was a case of the EU being slow paying amounts owed to small businesses for research grants. This is the second time I have been asked to help with this sort of problem (I suspect there are many more?). I spoke to the company concerned and have offered to help follow up their case when back in Brussels next week. I also visited a small medical research company hoping to get a grant for development of a Motor Neurone disease treatment. It was very useful for me to see a real example of the bureaucracy involved.

Public Services - again in Hertfordshire I visited the fire service's training facility. I was extremely impressed to hear that Herts Fire Service is to lead the first cross European major disaster training exercise for Urban search and rescue. They will lead emergency services from the UK, Germany, Ireland and Denmark in exercises across cities and urban areas in the UK. 120 UK firefighters went to Holland this week to take part in the "storm surge" exercise to learn how they may attempt to deal with a North Sea flood disaster - if such an event were to occur it could be devastating for parts of East Anglia.

Financial matters - The next few months will see a plethora of legislation regarding financial services coming in front of the Economic and Monetary affairs committee that I sit on in the parliament. I have spent large parts of this week joining commuters from across the East of England on their way to the City of London. Meetings with industry players like the Stock Exchange and British Bankers Association are helping me to understand some of the details of the proposed legislation - its vital we focus on the impact of legislation on the end user. I'm not convinced that the UKIP heckling of the head of the FSA from behind my right shoulder at the Mansion House dinner on Tuesday evening really helped to move forward the complex debate about balancing the need for new regulations with assisting the real economy to get back on it's feet!

Fighting for jobs back at home - This week we have heard very worrying rumours of potential layoffs at the Vauxhall works in Luton. Robert Sturdy MEP, Geoffrey Van Orden MEP and I wrote a strongly worded joint letter to the Competition Commissioner back in Brussels reminding her that UK jobs should not suffer because of potential government cash sweeteners elsewhere on the continent. EU rules on "state aid" are there to prevent anti-competitive state subsidies and should be enforced!

Back in the office we've been debating the finer details of the Energy in Buildings Directive that I am now shadowing and helping with a tragic story about the difficulty of repatriating loved ones lost in accidents overseas. Meanwhile my mail box is filling up with voters' concerns about horse transport on the continent - thank goodness Newmarket is in my area so I have been able to get some helpful advice!

A varied week but I do admit that I took my birthday OFF (well mostly).

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Five good reasons to leave Strasbourg scaffolding behind us

It's Sunday night after living in the bubble of a Strasbourg week and my sanity(?)has begun to return.

Here are my five reasons why we must work to reform not only the macro problems of the EU but also continue to fight the micro issue of the Strasbourg parliament itself.

1. Waste of taxpayers money. Much has already been written by previous members from all parties on the waste of money, see here, here and even here. In today's austere times when public spending is under the spotlight it is even more unacceptable for elected members of any chamber to put up with such a symbol of waste.

2. Waste of time. OK this might sound a bit of a whinge but its a nightmare to travel to for work. Strasbourg is an outstandingly beautiful city and steeped in history. I would recommend anyone a visit. Most MEPs can to get Brussels by direct trains or flights but not so Strasbourg. Unlike many others I spent only 11 1/2 hours travelling this week and was able to squeeze in some constituency and office work on Monday morning and Friday. Many members spend both the Monday and the Friday just getting to and from the parliament, let alone staff and assistants.

3. The political frenzy. I hadn't realised before becoming elected how the Strasbourg session takes possession of the political wheel. When Westminster sits votes are spread out over many weeks. In the EP a month's worth of negotiations get squeezed into a tiny number of voting days. This week I have seen that reasoned negotiating positions that had been listened to in Brussels can suddenly find themselves fighting against the short term newspaper strapline or TV headline. Yes a week is a long time in politics but the cameras run dangerously faster in Strasbourg - It's only my second Strasbourg session and already I have seen that good sense can disappear to short termism.

4. The impact on the city itself. On my way back to the airport I shared a car with a new Swedish Socialist MEP. We discussed the circus of the parliament. She was eloquent in her concerns for the city itself. "Why does the city need to live with this?" she said "Would it not be better for them to have stability and a permanent public service institution, instead of the 40 odd days a year the MEPs are present." Looking over the headrest I could see how uncomfortable our driver felt with the conversation. His income no doubt reliant on our few days. In his face I saw why it would take a brave French politician to concede ground in the Strasbourg debate - but they would have a united political front from all other countries behind them.

and finally
5. Is the building still falling down?... The Houses of Parliament were built by the Victorians, construction of the US Capitol began in 1793 so the Strasbourg parliament buildings are mere babes. Last year the roof fell in. My own 11th floor office is in a building opened only 10 years ago. I'm not spaced out by tall buildings - I used to work on a 46th floor but I wont get into the far right lift. I doubt if the drop and recapture exercise it performs between floors 10 and 6 wouldn't get through the laxest of health and safety officers in the UK .. Interesting scaffolding has begun to appear. Even my children's school writes a long letter to parents when practically a single pole of scaffolding is erected. But here it has arrived without a word. UMMMM

Saturday, 12 September 2009

A run in with the military police

When I left home yesterday I really wasn't anticipating a confrontation with the anti terror squad.

The invitation was to visit Happisburg in North Norfolk to discuss coastal erosion with 3 teenagers who are gradually watching their village disappear under the sea. It's important. I threw out some ideas, they threw out others --- we discussed their frustrations (those with responsibility have no budgets, those who have budgets appear to have no responsibility). I gave them some ideas on campaigning tactics. We concluded that they need to get local people and the local council to come up with a practicable local plan. If they get a plan I will do what I can to see if they can unlock some EU funds. Its a bureaucratic nightmare but my colleagues' experiences is that sometimes local residents' solutions are far more affordable than top down ones.

As we left the village I realised that we were only down the road from Bacton, where the UK's main gas refinery is located on the North Sea. As one of my committees in the parliament includes energy I had wanted to visit this facility anyway - but its is miles away from just about anywhere. As we were nearby I thought it would be worth a detour.

Turning up a the main gate I called security on their intercom and explained I was a passing MEP. I was politely told to make an appointment. My assistant took a couple of photos from the public road for the album and we drove off.

We'd only gone about 200 yards when suddenly two (armoured?) police 4x4s appeared with sirens blazing and trapped my trusty Astra in their pincer movement. Suffice to say that the military police are a formidable force and I had stirred the hornets' nest. I would not advise others to do the same. It took a lot of IDs, business cards, numberplate searches and general interrogation before they conceded that I probably was who I said I was and this might not a bad thing for an MEP to be interested in. Eventually I left on friendly terms.

Though it was pretty frightening, in retrospect, I am pleased that the MoD did demonstrate their strength. Energy secruity is an extremely serious issue. I'm also extremely glad that my colleague (and former Brigadier) Geoffrey Van Orden MEP will be making a more official trip to Bacton in a few weeks. I will certainly be arming him with some questions.

Next time I'm on the coast perhaps I will use up my freetime with a paddle and an icecream..... beats Brussels anyday!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

A dog has 4 legs.... latest update from the EP

“A dog has four legs, my cat has four legs – therefore my cat is a dog”.
I started writing this 30,000 feet up on the Easy Jet from Prague to Stansted which reminded me to try to look at the big picture.

I was reading Jose Manuel Barosso’s paper on the “politicial guidelines for the next Commission” - His vision for the next 5 years as president of the European Commission. Like many pieces of Euro literature it is full of wonderful intentions (get the economy going, stem unemployment, upgrade skills, lead on climate change, thriving rural economies, innovation revolution) but the tangible actions are much less evident. My colleague Ashley Fox summed up Euro-logic with the description of his four legged cat/dog friend.

As an MEP I have found that one rapidly gets caught up the silo of committee work. There are so many issues that perhaps it is best to keep focused but I am beginning to bore for Britain about money – but especially in a recession that is important. We started the week in Brussels quizzing Mr Barosso on his paper – he is seeking our votes to retain his position. I asked how is he going to pay for this? Where are savings coming from? I see a commission aide has just filled my email inbox with his “detailed” answer.... more numbers... serves me right....but reading the email no more answers.

My second question was rather more complicated. A Federation of Small Business survey in the UK recently showed that access to bank capital remains a huge concern. Mr Barosso has promised that businesses in Europe will have “ a level playing field” with the ability to be globally competitive. But the more I meet financiers or dig into the detail of the mountain of papers on my desk I find examples of where the EU (through the commission) are getting ahead of the rest of the world with legislation and regulation. I have no problem with regulation if its good regulation, but I don’t want our businesses to be kicking up hill.

I went to Prague to join other MEPS from across Europe for the first of our “working days”. The big picture. Listening to members from other countries – especially our Eastern European countries about their priorities helped me to understand just some of their issues. Their history, why they joined the EU, why their relationship with Russia matters, how important their relationship with the West and the US are, their concerns about to energy security (yes it does matter to all of us if the gas is switched off but they are in the front line)... it has reminded me how different each member’ s problems are. . They don’t need cat=dog solutions.
Dirkjan Eppink MEP has summed up his vision of the ECR. We don’t want a United States of Europe but a United Europe of States.

... meanwhile the day to day challenge of running the MEP’s office continues. Whenever someone complains about any group/ their voice/ their role always ask if this was because they really just want a bigger office. For various reasons we have had to move office. Tom, my assistant carefully packed all his hard won forms of” work contracts”, “flat contracts”, “health contracts” and a lot of my diary into the “office move” boxes provided by the bureaucrats. The removal men moved them over night. In the early hours of the morning the cleaners came in removed the boxes to the shredders . I later found out that Charles Tannock MEP lost 10 years of carefully kept files on over 250 countries in exactly the same manoeuvre.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Business, Brussels and Boris

Today has been one of those Brussels business days when suddenly everything happens at once. It was the first major meetings of the "committees" of the new parliament. My own committee, "Economic and Monetary Affairs", has had a packed agenda - discussing need for a global regulation of financial markets with US Congressmen, setting the agenda priorities for the months ahead and opening the debate on the first major piece of legislation to hit the desk (The Alternative Investment Fund Management Directive.

In the midst of this I was able to welcome Boris to Brussels. Hotfoot from the Eurostar the Mayor of London arrived to make sure that every possible parliamentarian understands the implications that the plethora of financial services legislation passing through Brussels would have, not just on the City of London but actually on UK and European businesses trying to raise capital and on the pensions or future savings of our voters back at home.

In the parliament it is often tempting to make sweeping statements for headlines but with so much of this legislation the devil is in the detail. In the back of my mind today I have been thinking about some of the companies back at home that I have been able to meet over recent months. Companies in inovative industries like hi-tech, software, bio-tech. Businesses that (if we get it right) will be the drivers of new economic growth, jobs and prosperity. If we get it wrong, these inovations will either not happen or happen overseas. Little tiny details in the single directive that we discussed today could make it much, much more difficult for those companies to access the capital they need to survive let alone grow. Putting our real economy at a global competitive disadvantage is not a decision that should be taken lightly.

Of course we need regulation of financial services but it must be better regulation - Over the past few weeks working with my colleague Kay Swinburne MEP I have been given many example of how "little" details in the vast wadges of legislation would have unintended consequences not just in the City of London but in the real economy too. Boris helped make those points today. It has been helpful to hear others from across the political spectrum make similar points.

A busy day, on the whole a good day, but its early days...

Monday, 24 August 2009

My Saturday Evening on the Combine Harvester

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed going out to meet the harvesting crew on Saturday evening. I could sit with briefing paper after briefing paper but I always find I learn so much more when I've actually been to "kick the tyres" on any subject.

There's no 45 hour week during the harvest season. Bruce, driving the brand new New Holland CR 9090 has been behind the wheel from morning until 11pm every day for the past fortnight only stopping when the rain is really heavy. Even with this state of the art machine there is no time to rest, and he hopes to have finished by Tuesday.

I saw real team work. The combine is accompanied by a fleet of 3 tractors and trailers off loading the grain in a constant cycle back to the store. No time wasted. Within a day of harvest another crew will come in and either cultivate and re-seed with rape or plough ready for for the next wheat crop. The new seed must get in the ground and start growing before winter sets in.

Innovation is constant. Jim proudly showed me the new cultivator rig that he had modified and built himself to meet the farms specific heavy clay soil and significantly beating the performance of the best available in the market.

There is real care for local wildlife - birds, hares and foxes were lovingly watched out for as they scampered away. "the countryside is what makes the job so special" said Bruce.

Care is taken of the ground too. I asked Charlie the boss why he was re-ploughing the straw back into the earth when I saw neighbours bailing it up for sale. He explained that he ploughs back every nutrient he can. "Its the potash - the world is running out" he explained "it won't be an issue in my lifetime but will be for my son." Charlie's son is only 8 but in farming those who care about the future think many years ahead.

Charlie went on to explain that despite the better technology and exceptional team work the actual yields per acre of ground have not significantly improved for many decades. "The world population is growing but we're not growing any more. We will run out of food" Charlie explained. This is all before climate change. He asked me to focus on the importance of research and development in seed types. (Incidentally I notice that Defra is worried about this too - their consultation Food 2030 was launched mid August and they are hoping for comments by the end of the summer - I wonder how many farmers will have time to do that over the harvest period?)

On the way back home we discussed the volatility of world food prices and the challenges his friends and family members have around the country, from cattle (beef) to dairy herds, the milk price and power of the supermarkets.

In just a couple of hours on a Saturday evening I have learnt so much and started thinking about much more. Thank you to our local farmers for sharing their harvest thoughts.

Friday, 21 August 2009

What have you done this August?

Its nearing the end of the holiday period and I have to admit its been good to spend the past fortnight based at home.

The local radio station called today. They wanted to know my views on the "112" emergency phone number that one should be able to can dial from anywhere in Europe as an alternative to 999. Seems like a sensible idea but it will be interesting to find out if the radio listeners have every heard of it or tried to use it!

I've learnt that its impossible predict what might come through the MEP postbag. From do I support the NHS (yes) to how should one challenge a parking ticket in Florence or a Cypriot insurance claim? The advantage of having 3 Conservative MEPs in the region is that we can share out these case work issues and also learn from each other's areas of expertise.

Very many people have been extremely helpful in helping teach me about a cross section of different issues. A leading Cambridge entrepreneur explained the pros and cons of Silicon Fen vs Silicon Valley. Rebecca Harris (one of our South Essex PPCs) and I went to vist Ford's R&D facility just off the M25. We saw how each new generation of engine is developed and tested .... Did you know each minor modification is stress tested to make sure it will start at -39C just in case it is ever asked to cope with a Finnish winter. They have some pretty impressive fridges!

I'm also discovering that every meeting like this raises a number of questions that deserve following up. I can't do it all myself! Even people who I thought knew a lot about politics are surprised when they learn job doesn't come with any pre-assigned assistants. Maria who is running the UK office has spent her summer overseeing building of dividing walls and negotiating rents as well helping with the emails. From next week Tom will be running the Parliament research side.

Tomorrow morning (Saturday) I will join one of our local MPs for a canvassing session and have just heard back from the local farmer who's going to take me out on the combine in the evening. Conversations outside our local post office often involve recent movements in wheat prices. Next week I will spend a few days meeting a cross section of different financial institutions prior to the first discusssions on the plethora of legislation on the upcoming agenda. After that I have a week in Brussels, week in Prague and then to Strasbourg. Thank goodness for August!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Week 2....

Anyone who is frustrated by the red tape of European beaureaucracy will not be surprised that it takes more than 6 weeks to get a phone number in the European Parliament.

Over the past few weeks I have had to fill in so many forms I have lost count. Each form requires a queue at a different door. The first attempt is usually rejected and one is sent off to get another stamp from a bank, accountant's certificate, accompanying birth certificates, marriage certificates etc etc. One then rejoins the queue a couple of days later. Just getting the phone number to put on a business card feels like a great achievement.... though rather futile as there is no voicemail or ability to divert calls to a mobile. The office with the phone is a good 10 minutes walk from where meetings happen so unless I recruit a band of staff it will ring to an empty room. The parliament won't let my EU email ping to my blackberry so I can only pick up EU emails sitting at my desk but whilst at the desk there is no wifi coverage to check up my UK email account. Thank goodness I type fast and text for Britain.

On Monday I left home at 6.30 am to join a packed room in London for George Osborne's launch of the white paper on sound banking regulation. Then to Brussels and another 4 hours of forms. Peter Wilding an old friend from our voluntary work in Rwanda took me out to see the City - beautiful in parts but boy do they have a grafitti issue!

Tuesday Morning saw the co-ordinators meeting of the Economic and Monetary affairs committee. Kay Swinburne our MEP for Wales is a calm head and would normally be our co-ordinator but due to her constituency engagements I stood in. I'm sorry but I got a bit stroppy..... As a new member this felt like classic smoked filled room stuff - behind closed doors. A major piece of legislation that affects every single pension and investment in Europe was being debated in rather fast French with no translation. Given that over 70% of the members of this committee are new to the parliament I make no apology for asking for clarity in working practices!

During the rest of the day and on Wednesday Kay and I spoke to representatives from trade associations, regulators, leading banks, lawyers and investment companies about the plethora of legislation on the upcoming agenda. I don't think it is unreasonable to ask these institutions for "impact assessments" - what will the regulation cost the consumer or borrower. If they don't like the regulation what would they suggest as an alternative? For someone who has always worked in open planned offices I find it crazy to have to walk for at least 10 minutes to get back from a meeting place to my desk and by Wednesday mid-day there were blisters. NOTE will need comfier shoes.

Before catching the last train back to the UK last night I had a good meeting with local representatives from the East of England office about my ambitions to get more EU money back to my local area. Ideas whirring round while I did my homework on the Eurostar. Home 11.30 pm.

Today I've been in Norwich North - fingers crossed for Chloe in the count tomorrow. On the doorstep I met a man who has been on the local authority housing list for 15 years and is still waiting. I enjoyed a lengthy discussion about how to keep the local foxes away from the household chickens (its not all an urban constituency!)... and my daughters chickens have been wiped out 3 times in the past 18 months.

Tomorrow I go to an EERA meeting regarding EU grants in my area. Another 3 hours driving and hugely frustrating bureaucary, will it help to unlock funds?

The parliament now won't meet again until September. I am looking forward to some time back in the UK as well as our annual trip to the West of Ireland. The only mobile coverage there is in the local purveyor of Guinness, which puts it on a similar level of communication technology as the European Parliament!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Week One of the European Parliament

This was my first week as an MEP. I formally started on Tuesday

I got to the Parliament building in Strasbourg early to pick up my crucial voting card only to find that Glyn Ford the former Labour MEP who was not re-elected last month had beaten me to it and somehow signed out my card.... "There is only one Vicky Ford" said the person at the desk. "Yes, I know, I am her!". Fortunately another voting card was found, though I'm not sure what happened to the first one...

No sooner had I found my seat than I had to make my first decision. The "European Anthem" started up and around the chamber members rose to their feet. Sit or Stand which was it to be? I sat. For me this was not out of disrespect for the organisation but simply a message that the Lisbon treaty which introduces the anthem has not been approved by the British public.

The first day continued - much has been written about the activities of a certain (now ex) Conservative and the results. Dan Hannan, as ever, has the words to sum up a very long day. One small advantage of the late night meeting was that Syed Kamall our very helpful MEP from London showed me how to log on to my new parliament email address from my new laptop!

On day 2 after a strong coffee with the Association of British Insurers I was gently strolling into the back of the chamber again to listen to the first debate. "Someone needs to speak from the UK" I was told. I nodded. "They should speak about the financial services regulation that's coming through the parliament". "Yes" I concurred again. "OK, you'll be speaking in about one hour"......errrrr.... Jelly legs and head whirring I disappeared back into my new office, with a very helpful assistant I started scribbling. I think I was the first of the new intake to make a maiden speech - it wasn't great, I over-ran my time (arch sin)- but I was congratulated later by members from across the floor as well as my own team so perhaps I did get the point across. Good to get the first speech over and done!

We need to get financial regulation right - not just because we must learn from the disasters of the credit crunch and if at all possible stop it happening again but also because if we get it wrong we risk putting every lender both in Britain and across the continent at a huge competitive disadvantage and forcing businesses to up sticks and move overseas.

Later in the day I was told that I will be representing us on the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee and a substitute member for Industry, Research and Energy. My first choices, and a good fit with our other two regional MEPS - Geoffrey Van Orden on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Transport and Robert Sturdy on Trade and Agriculture. Somewhere in the day I also attended an NFU briefing.

Early on Thursday I returned home - and no I didn't sign in and sod off. I spent the day preparing the 600 odd letters that I have sent across the East of England encouraging Councillors, PPCs and MPs to share experiences of getting EU grant funding so that hopefully we can become more aware of how to get our money back! I did sneak off to the Harry Potter movie with the kids... its great. We finished the letters at 1am.

On Friday (was that really only yesterday?) I started by meeting business representatives of the Bio tech industry in Cambridgeshire organised by ERBI. Frightening. I was told that 40% of the members have less than 6 months funding. The senior civil servant was told in no uncertain terms that if the government doesn't get its promised funding out to small businesses by Christmas they might as well pack up shop. They urgently need to access promised money for research or yet another UK cutting edge industry faces a crisis. I then went to Lowestoft on the edge of the East of England for a fundraising thank you lunch and finally down to Brentwood in South Essex to speak in a debate about the economy. During the day I got the good news that we have provisional approval for our EU fund bid to help get freight off the roads and onto the railways across East Anglia and the Midlands. EXCELLENT.

Next week is back to back Monday - Wed in London and Brussels learning more about the key issues in financial services regulation. On Thursday I hope to get to Norwich North to help with polling day and Friday is our quarterly meeting to learn(?) about EU funding in the region.... always a frustrating meeting full of red tape, but a vital issue while so much of our money is tied up in these funds. I hope to be able to help with this during the coming years.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Where is that money.....

In the past fortnight I have been combined a trip to Brussels to sort out office etc with a whistle stop tour around the East of England meeting businesses and some of our community leaders. On Friday I was in Bedfordshire meeting the new Central Beds council. Tomorrow, before flying out to Strasbourg, I will meet councillors in Essex. Yesterday I was at Hertfordshire County Hall for their annual reception. There I met councillors, community leaders, many local mayors and representatives of the Youth Parliament (pictured). In addition I have met business leaders, farmers and rural business owners in Cambridgeshire. I've spent a day in Norwich as well as Suffolk Coastal.

The constant complaint is the lack of funds - and more specifically - the impenetrable maze of red tape that surrounds EU grants. At a time when purse strings are tight everywhere it is incredibly frustrating to know that British taxpayers money has been paid into funds, that the funds are "available" but somehow may not be getting back to where they are needed.

For example, we have over 500,000 small or medium sized businesses (SMES) in the East of England and they are a crucial part of our economy. Many of these companies are involved in Research and Development where the EU has a 7 year budget for over €50billion. The EU target is to allocate at least 15% of the budget to small or medium sized companies. I'm not a fan of top down targets but hearing that our region with so many SMEs is 20% below that target does back up what the companies themselves have been saying. The money does not appear to be getting to where it is needed.

I have been told again and again that information on different funds is very confusing. In the next few weeks I will be writing to councillors across the region asking them to share examples of good or bad experiences from grass root levels. We also need much clearer information on what may be available and how businesses, voluntary organisations or local authorities can find help navigating this maze.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

A trip to Norwich ....

Today I was back in Norwich helping out Chloe Smith's by-election campaign.

There are lots of good political reasons to get over to Norwich now - all by-elections are crucial, some are frenetic but this is clearly one where the helpers are not only working incredibly hard but also enjoying.

Chloe is a super candidate who has energised local campaigners and, yes, the feedback from the voters is that its Time for Change.

Norwich is also a wonderful day (or weekend) out for the family. A couple of Saturdays ago I turned up in the morning with my 3 children (aged 11,9 and 7). We delivered some leaflets and then had some family time. The covered market is a glory for pocket and birthday money. A late (not expensive) lunch in one of the side streets was followed by a trip to the Castle.... they do a £1 ticket between 4pm and closing time. My children's only complaint was that they had not left themselves enough time to enjoy the hands on experience created by the outstanding museum staff. I've taken them to plenty of "Historical Sites" or "Museums" over the years but rarely have they been united in demanding "more!". Come on over to Norwich, help the campaign and enjoy the city.

p.s. just in case you are interested in what else I am doing I got back late last night from Brussels (see previous post) and tomorrow will be meeting one of our leading Agri-businesses in Cambridgeshire and then local councillors in Bedfordshire... had a good day on Sunday meeting residents and speaking at a lunch in Aldeburgh (Suffolk).

Caught between a Rock and a Hardplace... and all those forms

Yesterday I was in Brussels for the second of our meetings of the new European Conservative and Reform Group. I continue to be extremely impressed by members I have spent time with in the new group, especially from some of the smaller countries. I can not tell you how un-impressed I am with the bureaucracy... I have no bug with individual members of the staff but the FORMS! Hours and hours and hours filling in bits of paper. Over a month since polling day but we are still not formally inaugurated so I can not even get a phone line. Apparently there is a parliament email account with a bulging inbox in my name that I will not be allowed to access until next week.

In the meantime my home email and blackberry have been buzzing with questions from constituents.

Yesterday afternoon we met two of the candidates for the presidency of the parliament. Both prioritised human rights, energy security and environmental issues (hard to argue on the principal but the devil will always be in the detail). One was a UK Lib Dem who suggested MEPs should have MORE expenses (for self publicity) but at least conceded that we should have a debate on the future of the Strasbourg circus. He suggested that all the truly horrid things he had said about the new group during the election should be put down to the heat of battle and he didn't really mean them...(!)

Next we met the Polish EPP candidate, a respected free marketeer with a businesses and research background. Sadly no debate on Strasbourg offered and he's a firm backer of the Lisbon treaty. Whilst I have been elected to vote on behalf of the electorate of the East of England I am realising that decisions will often be weighing up the proverbial rock vs hardplace.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Key Statistics

Today I met the head of the Regional Development Agency.... I am not a fan of "Regional" organisations but she asked me to mull over two sets of numbers. I pass them on to you.

Her numbers....
1. In the East of England £5 million is being spent every day on unemployment benefits;
2. Someone earning £30,000 a year contributes £16,000 a year to the exchequer. If they become unemployed they take out £18,000 per year.

Looking at figures in this way is very blunt edged - the real implications of losing one's job are much more than just monetary, maybe others would interperet this data differently - but these numbers certainly get the brain cells in perspective..

I also met the Chamber of Commerce leader in Cambridgeshire... who sent me away with a long reading list on the cost of bureaucracy and promsies to help me meet his counterparts in other counties.

tomorrow I will be meeting a co-operative of local farmers, speaking at a fundraising lunch and then catching up with one of our bigger county council leaders

Friday, 26 June 2009

Setting up office etc

A few people have asked what I have been doing since the election and why no blogs .... just so you know over the next few weeks I will be looking at launching a new website that will allow readers to peruse Vicky's new role.

Officially I start the job as MEP on 14th July when we are sworn into the parliament. This doesn't mean I, or the other MEPs elect have been sitting in the sun.

I know that if I am to do a good job I need research and admin support. I am in the process of setting up offices both locally and in Brussels and interviewing some of the many many people who have contacted me wanting to join the team. In the UK I asked a local headhunter and an experienced agent to take part in a final interview for the person who will be an office manager/ pa here.. So hopefully the UK end will be live pretty soon after 14 July.

For the Brussels office I have drawn up a short list for a research assistant based on interviews and sent them each a hideous piece of practice research to prepare overnight last night. So again decisions will be made soon. I had a good couple of days in Brussels this week. Mostly admin but also meeting members of our new group. Some very impressive people. Also catching up with the East of England office in Brussels.

I have been trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible with some of the legislation that will hit the new parliament. The financial services legislation in particular must be got right - we must learn from the lessons of the credit crunch and make sure new regulation is good regulation not just rushed into. This has involved various days of meetings in London.

I have been following some of the more local issues that we campaigned on. This week the 3 Tory MEPs (Robert Sturdy, Geoffry Van Orden and me) all signed a joint letter supporting the bid to get some EU funds for our project to help get freight onto the railways across East Anglia and beyond. I will be at a meeting about this on Monday.

I've attended a sub regional conference on "growth", have been campaigning with Chloe Smith in Norwich and am setting up some meetings with some of our council leaders and business leaders over the next fortnight. Tonight I am hosting drinks for some of the local candidates and campaigners who worked in our constituency and nearby (I hope the weather is nice!). This is all before the job is meant to start.

OK and I have also had two very nice Sundays watching cricket, seen the kids school play and cheered on a few races for sports day.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

First Thoughts on being elected

I can't tell you how good it felt to stand on the stage in front of the TV cameras and hear that over half a million people have put a cross on the ballot paper by the Conservative Party.

The past 6 weeks has been a wonderful experience. I have met thousands of people, seen many different issues and tried to keep people up to date via the blog.

The success today by the Conservatives in our region has been about team work. We had an exceptional team of MEP candidates who all campaigned hard - but more importantly an amazing team of local volunteer activists and county council candidates from Watford to Cromer, Peterborough to Southend and everywhere in between. They have all worked their socks off. Thank you so much to everyone, I promise to work my own socks off for our area for the next 5 years.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Heffer in a Huff

This morning I met Simon Heffer. Boris may have encouraged him to stand for parliament but I was not impressed.

I left home at 5.30am and joined local Conservative Council candidates at Chelmsford station by 7am to hand out leaflets at one of the main commuter stations into London. We were there one evening last week meeting people on their way home.

This morning's campaigning was well received - over half the people we approached took our leaflet, I had to pop back to the car to reload. I was even told more than once that as we were the only party they had seen they would vote for us.

By around 8.30am the mass of hard working commuters had gone on their and the team went for a coffee and bacon sarnie. NO Expenses.

So it was well outside normal commuting hours when a 4x4 rolled up and Mr Heffer huffed out of the passenger seat.

I have a friend (just one, admittedly) who hangs onto every word Heffer writes. I wanted to say hello. I bounced up to the car, with a smile and held out my hand - "Mr Heffer, I am Vicky Ford, one of the Conservative Candidates in Thursday's election. I live near Saffron Walden" (that's the seat he thinks he wants to win from the Tories in the next general election). I offered him our LOCAL election leaflet. Mr Heffer stared at me in dismay - or was it disgust? He pushed aside the leaflet, announced he would be voting elsewhere and marched off.

He could certainly improve his people skills! Dare I say it, he could learn a lot from Tony Juniper of the Green Party (and sometime adviser to the Conservatives), with whom I shared a Platform at the Cambridge Hustings last night.

Politics is team work - from the very local to the national and international level This evening at Shenfield Station as well as questions on EU "In or OUT" - I was asked questions about how to deal with harassment on Brentwood High Street, local planning issues and the head of the local swimming club wanted to discuss the issues with "free swimming" policy. One local councillor discussed what he is doing with the police on the harassment issue (they left happy), the swimmer had an in depth chat with a board member from the pool (ditto happy) and we all had a heated debate about the planning issue. OK sometimes our team is not perfect, but when it works it is a million times better than a huffy independent.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Question Time in the East

I was extremely impressed by the group of students from all across Norfolk who came to take part in the Politics Show question time debate. You can see it here. (Scroll in 29 minutes to avoid having to listen to Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson).

Their questions were on
1. expenses (we need transparency);
2. the un-audited EU accounts (which the Conservatives have continually refused to vote through)
3. the money Britain pays into the EU (I think the EU budget is too big - and often not well spent here at home ... wish I'd reminded the Labour MEP that his westminster colleagues are giving away our rebate too!);
4. Do we need a referendum - YES;
5. Immigration (the bottom of the recession is not a time to be isolationist, for decades we have relied on migrant workers, for example in farming, but it is also a real issue especially in some areas which is why we need a grown up debate and proper controls).

As someone who is not elected it is of course rather daunting to take on veteran MEPs in front of the TV cameras for the first time - but I enjoyed it!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Interesting Poster

Passing through the very busy St Albans market today I nearly crashed into this poster van.. but took a picture instead.

Monday, 25 May 2009

more shaggy dog stories and coastal erosion

What is it with me and dogs on this election campaign? Four weeks ago it was dog bite through letter box. This morning it was a warm wet dribble down the left ankle. I was gently putting the world to rights with one lady at the bank holiday market in rural Fordham, Cambridgeshire when her companion clearly felt he could wait no longer for the urban lamppost - she was mortified. On returning home I popped my trainers in the washing machine and reflected that the reception amongst the human kind had been more constructive.

On Friday I was in a small village on the Norfolk Coast that is gently slipping into the sea. Our Westminster Candidate Trevor Ivory had brought together local resident experts from fishermen to environmental scientists along with representatives of the parish, district and county council to meet with potential Westminster and European parliamentarians for a serious discussion on a very serious issue... This was a model of how we need to work together at all levels of representation.

The cliffs are falling away. Back in Victorian days (and before that) public engineers came up with creative ideas to hold back the tide - THAT WORKED - but in the past few years our coastal defenses have been neglected. In one day I had a condensed degree course in erosion, the local economy, tidal movements, fish spawning grounds, gravel dredging, insurance issues and more. It's something you can't learn from a text book but need to see with experts on the ground. Local people say our generation's neglect is storing up more problems for the future. On the ground, I can see their point.

I have promised to find out more about how other countries are dealing with similar problems. For example, do other countries have a local maintanance/insurance program? Advice welcome!

Thursday, 21 May 2009

From mending the potholes to hankies for Obama...

Last night I met a David Cameron fans. A frail elderly lady in Cambridge answered the door. When DC and Samantha had their third child she knitted a baby blanket for them. She even showed me David's thank you letter. However she is extremely concerned as she has not yet received a thank you from Michelle Obama for the lace hankies that she popped in the post to the White House a few weeks ago. Could I help her sort out what is wrong with the US postal system? I suggested that she gives the Obamas a few more weeks to respond. It made a difference from the normal complaints about potholes and pavements but perhaps more difficult to sort out.

Seriously though there have been some accusations (from other parties!) that we Conservatives are not out and about meeting the public enough in this election - this could not be further from the truth. We are not only on the doorsteps but also actively going to places where we might meet as many members of the public as possible. Yesterday as well as canvassing in Cambridge we spent some time handing out leaflets during the home rush hour near the station. OK this photo was taken between trains! One taxi driver took my leaflet - read it and then came back asking for a bundle. He was so impressed he would like to share our message with passengers.

Tonight I will attend a public hustings organised by a community group in Woodbridge, Suffolk and on Monday I will attend another hustings in Cambridge.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

That's Life comes to Luton

This morning the Westminster parliamentary candidate for Luton North had a long standing meeting with the principal of the "outstanding" sixth form college.

As we were tucked away in the head's office learning about his funding issues, exam successes and building plans we heard that Esther Rantzen was down the corridor with the A level politics group. The BBC asked us to join in the team discussion.

It was all rather bizarre. Esther seemed to have got her geography a bit muddled. She is thinking about standing in the next general election in Luton South - not North. She told us that the young people had been discussing crime and not feeling safe at night - and the poor image that they complain others associate with their town - why didn't politicians focus on young people's issues? With a dramatic gesture she announced that if she is elected to represent the town weight she will bring her celebrity friends to bring ballroom dancing to Luton. This didn't exactly set the group on fire... though they were pleased to be listened to.

Jeremy Brier,
our excellent young parliamentary candidate took an intake of breath, he explained that in recent weeks he has knocked on over 2,000 doors in the town. They are not all celebrities - he explained some of the things he think could be done with encouraging local community volunters.

Whilst I applaud Esther for highlighting the need to clean up the expenses scandal there is more to do. Tossing her hat into the ring here could end up splitting the vote for the Conservative candidate in Luton South Nigel Huddleston and allowing Labour back in - that is if Margaret Moran doesn't get the message before the election and step down.

I am not going to claim that I know all the solutions to Luton's issues but it will take more than a cha-cha-cha or a tango. There are the business and jobs issues I wrote about a few days ago as well as the concerns at Vauxhall. Christian and Muslim leaders have written to all candidates asking asking for peace and Unity following recent events of extremism that do not reflect the views of the majority. I do know from recent visits that we have dedicated conservative candidates and volunteers working with local people to help make a difference and feeding back the concerns and issues from the ground to David Cameron's team in Westminster helping to form not just local but national policy.

Jeremy and I then went on to meet volunteers at the hospital radio and record a non political piece about what working life might be like if elected to the European Parliament.

I then left Luton to join candidates in Hemel Hempstead for a VERY positive canvassing session. The local conservative MP, Mike Pelling is clearly very deeply respected. His experience as a trained firefighter shone through during the Buncefield Oil depot explosion. I heard from local councillors that the constituency had not even begun to recover from the loss of jobs from Buncefield when the recession started to bite. But what I heard on the doorstep tonight was a clear endorsement that they know their MP is on their side.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Away from expenses rows there are other issues too....

Today has been a busy day on the campaign trail focusing on some of the issues affecting businesses in the region. Despite the understandable anger about MPs expenses, we should not forget these issues.

In Newmarket our MEP candidate team was joined by Jeremy Hunt, shadow minister for media, culture and sport. Around 7,000 people from all walks of life are employed in the horse training and breeding industry around Newmarket, and 80,000 across the UK. Horses from here travel all across the world. The industry like many others has been affected by the recession. Free trade is vital. We discussed what has already been done to lift trade restrictions, what more can be done as well as the worrying implications of some planned EU legislation and how we could help them.

At formal campaign "launch" we all signed a pledge on transparent expenses and our aims to stand up for Britain against EU rule, fight against the waste of British taxpayers money in the EU and defend British businesses in a free trade environment. Good stuff.

We went to visit the other end of the extreme in rural business. Three years ago a family farm in Norfolk decided to diversify into their dream and built England's only Whisky distillery. (Given that most of UK's malt is produced from barley grown in East Anglia there should be more!). This business employs only 5 extra members of staff but they are important jobs in a rural area. Within this short time they are already exporting around the world and had 20,000 visitors stop off for a tour last year. We discussed the benefit they have had from the lower pound.

Then to Archant Newspapers, owners of the Eastern Daily Press and many other papers and magazines across the East of England. This industry has been hit (there are lots of different reasons) but the recession has accelerated a downturn in revenues - think of the drop off in income from property and job ads alone. Local papers are important, not only do most people look in them if finding a home to rent or new job but they also are often vital in holding local government to account. They too want a level playing field with, for example, news sheets funded by local councils. Jeremy was able to discuss his concerns and share ideas.

Then to Norwich Castle and their excellent museum (I must take my children there). Again they are needing to be extra careful with cash. I heard that they have benefited from EU funds in the past and about their struggles with bureaucracy. Again this is something I would like to see reformed - it is British tax-payers money that has been paid over to the EU: we would like more back but it must be spent well.

Then on to Fakenham on the Norfok coast. I was given a tour of the town, and the race course that pulls in over 10,000 visitors on a good race day. Tourism and agriculture are the key businesses - as well as the chocolate factory. I spoke about what we would like to do to help agriculture with our Honest Food Campaign, and heard from those involved in "hospitality" how the lower pound may help with this years summer tourist trade. I explained our commitment to keep out of the Euro. Crime and antisocial behaviour are issues too, I saw the shop windows that had been smashed over the weekend.

We then went to knock on some doors. Not surprisingly the expenses scandal is the biggest talking point but as the conversations progress to other issues I was buoyed up by the large number of people who feel that the Conservative party is still worth their vote.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Being on the doorsteps is more important than ever before

It is not easy out on the doorsteps in the middle of expenses-gate but it is important.

There are many who are not interested - many still are - and some just need to talk.

This evening in Hatfield I met a soldier's mother. When I introduced myself she told me she has spent each election reminding others that woman died for the right to vote - but she was so distressed by this week's news she said she would spoil her ballot paper. We talked.

Her son had been sent to Iraq without proper boots, he has fought for our country in Afghanistan. For a family that has given so much to be so disillusioned by their political leaders is truly desperate.

We talked for a long time - I explained the frustrations that had brought me into politics, my background, what we are fighting for in these elections. We talked about what our husbands like to do at the weekend. She even said that she likes her local MP.

With 5 1/2 million people living in the East of England it is impossible to talk to them all - but I felt that this mother more than earned her right to let all this week's anger out on someone who is standing for election.

Perhaps she will now use her vote. I will keep knocking on doors.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

What the Teacher said.........

This morning I met an outstanding group of sixth-formers. Despite it being the middle of exam season nearly 200 students gathered in the school hall (I believe voluntarily!) knowing they were going to meet and question politicians involved in the up-coming election.

I asked the students how many of them were entitled to vote in this election- many hands went up. I then asked how many would vote. The vast majority of those hands stayed up. We often hear negative things about young people but whenever I have had a chance to talk talk to school groups recently I have been very impressed from Norfolk to Cambridgeshire and today in Essex.

Caught up in the morass of expenses scandals there are many negative things being said about politicians. The three candidates today each gave our personal story of what had brought us to a stage where we decided to stop complaining from the outside and decide to put our own heads over the parapet in these local and international elections. The students then asked probing and informed questions. I was even followed out of the hall by two students wanting to know my views on Turkey and the EU.

OK this may not be a normal school in its approach to international affairs - it is a state comprehensive but an "International School" and the students sit the international baccalaureate, not A Levels.

At the end of the meeting the Co-Head Teacher gave a speech in defence of politicians. Very Brave. He implored the students to dig deeply into their education and conscience when deciding who to vote for. He asked them to think hard about why the newspapers print a story before believing it - he confronted the expenses scandal and asked them to debate what politicians should be paid (or go back to the dark days when only the wealthy could afford to do the job). He told them that the gap between politicians and people was larger than at any time he had known, but that without politics they would not today have their school, and it would be politicians and not bankers or financiers who have to sort out the mess of our economy. He even told them that politics is an honorable profession.

He told them that "there is noting wrong with having principles that evolve - what is wrong is having no principles". As a former banker turned politician I could have hugged him.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Feedback from the Streets....

As a candidate in the upcoming European Elections I am covering hundreds of miles and meeting hundreds of people each day - I hope I am not spreading Swine Flu ... no sneezes yet!

In Kings Lynn today the shops were very busy. Lynn draws people from not just Northern Norfolk but across the fens from Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire too. It is no surprise that after the expenses scandals stories many residents say not going to vote but they were outnumbered by those who will - if I had a penny for every person who told me they were pleased with the action that David Cameron took yesterday then I would more than have covered all my recent petrol fill-ups. People are always surprised when I tell them that candidates are volunteers and not paid for their time or any expenses. Incidentally if elected I will publish any expenses on line.

I then went down to Eye in Suffolk to canvas with Cllr Guy McGregor who has become a friend through our shared passion to help get long distance freight off the roads and onto the rail. Guy informed me that the bid for EU funds to help this project went in today.... finally our lobbying of the Department for Transport has worked. The bid should have gone in years ago. British taxpayers money is paid into the EU and we must get our fair share back.

Guy had arranged a public meeting in the beautiful town hall. The crowd that turned up were surprised to hear that this is one of the larger audiences that have been at such meetings across the country. Guy and his fellow district councillors spoke with great passion about the differences that have been made to affordable housing, schools and roads in the areas... as well as how the care for the rurally isolated elderly population. Good stuff.

I'm sorry if I bored them to death with what the Tories are doing to fight back against silly EU directives affecting the poultry industry, food labelling, how new UK cars no longer need seperate tests in 27 countries etc -let alone everything that is wrong with the Lisbon treaty but they are important too.

Monday, 11 May 2009

A lifeboat story...

Today has to be a personal highlight of the European Election campaign so far. When I was a child I collected bottle tops for a Blue Peter campaign to buy a lifeboat. Today I got to stand on one. - admittedly the boat was on shore in the shed but perhaps some day they will take me to sea. The RNLI is a fabulous organisation - so was the boat I visited today.

Today I visited the Caister lifeboat, near Yarmouth. It is the only non-RNLI boat in the country, has a 200+ year history and gets about 50 call outs a year. They raise over £140,000 a year just to keep the service going, all the lifeboat men are volunteers and their passion for serving the local community is palpable. When I asked how we could help they just told me to let people know what they do.

Earlier in the day I was at Huntingdon Regional College where again many members of staff were passionate about their desire to help their local community - both young and old. We need to provide hands on skills to help build our way out of this recession, local training is vital. But the principal explained that her building is obsolete, she has a cost effective plan for moving but is caught up in the multi million pound scandal of mismanagement of national funding budgets.

David Willetts
explained to me in detail the capital expenditure accounting trap that has caused a double whammy for many similar colleges in the country. Sadly all the press were interested in was whether he can change a lightbulb - which clearly he can.

There are some very damning stories coming out in the press about those in political life - which is an insult to those who truly serve their communities. I have no time for those who fiddle expenses and the sooner this mess is cleared up the better.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Balancing Politics and a Family Life

Since I was first selected as a candidate in the European Elections I have been asked one question more than any other - its not about my views on healthcare, education, the economy (or EU budgets) but very quietly from county town to tiny village I have been taken aside by a concerned voter to ask how I would balance this job whilst also being a mother.

Perhaps the past few day's diary will give you a snapshot. On Friday morning I dropped the kids at school. Then I went to Watford (Hertfordshire), met our Westminster Candidate and many volunteers to collect signatures in the High Street demanding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The children were collected from school by a friend, went swimming and then back home to dad. In the meantime I spent a couple hours in Loughton (Essex) with Eleanor Laing MP. It was incredibly impressive to see Eleanor meeting many friends amongst her constituents, handing out leaflets, taking notes of local problems to help with later. Her constituents know that on Friday evenings she is usually outside the tube station and one constituent even came off the tube with a bundle of papers on an issue she wanted to share with her MP. I then went on to Southend to a public meeting - returning late.

My 11 year old daughter has been pestering me for a shopping trip. So yesterday, Saturday we went to Sudbury (Suffolk.) Whilst I joined Conservatives campaigning in the High Street and market square while my daughter enjoyed the tweenie paradise of "New Look" and picked up some presents for school friends. I handed out leaflets and combined doing some food shopping with discussing business with local market traders and politics with shoppers.

We raced back home for my final rehearsal - I sing in a choir. Last night's concert was a mixture of Gershwin, Bernstein and then lots of ABBA. My husband peeled himself and my boys off the cricket pitch just a bit late for the first half.... everyone was a bit late to bed still singing Mamma Mia.

Today, Sunday - day off - cricket training with the children in Saffron Walden, lunch in a cafe in the market square. Then Hannah Montana movie with my daughter in the afternoon (Hannah has 200 million viewers every week - we grown-ups should take note) ending up in a family supper with local lamb and some of the English Asparagus I bought yesterday. Yummy.... and a bit of emergency ironing!

I have no doubt that if elected on June 4th I will miss my family hugely for the 3 nights a week I will often spend away. But this is no different to the life of friends who are midwifes, doctors or casualty nurses who also work hours away from their family. Like them, I will be doing a job that I believe can make a difference, and like every working mum in the country I will need to concentrate on devoting time to both work and family.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Difficult times and parliamentary expenses

This morning, in Brentwood (Essex), I met a mother very slowly pushing her young daughter's buggy down the street - number two is due in July. They had just said goodbye to her husband who was made redundant recently. He was on his way to a job interview - perhaps he will be one of the lucky ones. I once put my hand up for redundancy and though for me it was "voluntary" and I was reasonably confident I had other options, it was still terrifying.

In Peterborough this evening I knocked on the door of a man who had just voted to take a pay cut in order to try to save his job, the company he works for and his fellow workmates. He had to explain this to his 17 year old daughter just as the TV was exposing another MP expenses story. Not yet able to vote herself she is already furious - so is he. He had spent 25 years serving his country on the frontline in the RAF. We talked.

I explained that if I am elected on June 4th and want to do the job well then I will need some help - but told him I won't employ any family members. Interestingly he said he didn't care about that - provided they are the right person and work hard. He said I should make public what is spent and what I've done.... so that if he thinks I have done a bad job or wasted his money he can vote me out. I agreed to do this.