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