Sunday, 27 November 2011

Belgium or Britain

A colleague texted me over the weekend worried that the press were suggesting Belgium could be next point of focus in the Eurozone crisis. I told him to stop worrying about his handful of cash in a Brussels bank, spend it on chocolate - I'm much more worried about Britain.

A quick look at the table on the back pages of the Economist is a brutal reminder that the UK budget deficit is twice that of the Eurozone and more than double that of Italy. Our pensions "gap" i.e. unfunded pension expectations, is the highest in Europe.

The only good news is that the UK government is still able to fund at a low level, not the 7 per cent plus faced by Italy and Spain. This will only continue so long as financial investors believe that the government is trying to sort out the mess. Financial investors include your pension fund and my pension fund and the place where we both put our insurance premiums.

Despite this it sounds as if the Unions really have not got the message that we can not carry on as before. Yes we should value teachers and nurses and doctors - my husband is one. But Wednesday's threatened strikes really do threaten us all.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

White Water, Supermarket Shopping and Science

It is November 5th. When I grew up in Northern Ireland during the “troubles” we were not allowed fireworks as they sound frighteningly like gunfire. I was ten before I saw my first rocket. I always enjoy fireworks displays, and remember me how lucky we are to live without terror.

As the European Parliament has been closed this week I spent a very busy and varied couple of days across the East of England this week, starting with a visit on Thursday to Ocado, the online supermarket. They employ 2,000 people at their base in Hatfield. Ocado reckon that that there is less than half the food waste and less than half the CO2 omissions per £ spent with them than an average UK supermarket. They were one of the highest profile stock market floatation’s in 2010 and would like to know whether the “short” positions in their shares are held by competitors who would like to see the back of them. We are in the process of finalising EU legislation which will give equivalent disclosure from people who sell "short" positions in company shares as that given by those who invest in the shares.

My next stop was the Lee Valley white water site which will host the Canoe events for the Olympics. En route a quick conversation with the BBC - I think they were rather surprised hear that I was not particularly phased by the suggestion that the Greek people might be offered a referendum. The situation in Greece was pretty chaotic last week even before this week's political to and fros. And last nights vote of 153 to 145 feels far from decisive.

The White Water site though is fantastic. They had expected 20,000 visitors this summer but the total was over 130,000, with many many people enjoying the white water rafting experience. This was a great chance to see first-hand how plans for the Olympics are coming together and not just in London. This facility feels as it if will be a long lasting, fun and profitable legacy. It supports local businesses and employs many multiples of the predictions.

I have been asked to help host a European Parliament briefing in Brussels early next year to remind people that the legacy of the games will be felt across the Eastern region beyond next year, and this is a great example of that in practice. I am also looking forward to visiting the mountain bike venue in Hadleigh, Essex, later this month. The total value of contracts for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games won by businesses in the East of England now tops £1billion, with over 400 contracts awarded to businesses for services varying from providing concrete for the construction of the aquatics centre to providing coaches for transporting athletes.

The afternoon finished with a tour of Johnson Matthey who are a speciality chemicals company focused on producing catalytic converters to reduce emissions in car exhaust fumes. From the Royston factory they export all over Europe. They follow EU legislation on car emissions very closely.

Over dinner in Cambridge I was able to pick the enormous brains of leading scientists on EU and internationally funded projects in Nuclear Fusion, Space telescopes, Satellites.

On Friday I joined Geoffrey Van Orden MEP and Andrew Duff MEP to meet with Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University. We discussed the current proposals for the restructuring of EU grants for science and research. As the only East of England MEP on the Research Committee, this is something I have been following closely. Well over 10% of research at Cambridge University’s is funded by EU grants. Many many other researchers at businesses and universities in the East of England also take part in EU funded research and it is one of the very few parts of the EU budget where the UK currently gets back more than it puts in. The latest proposals on the proposed restructuring from the European Commission appear extremely vague and could lead to more bureaucracy and uncertainty for scientists in the region. I will be meeting senior advisers from the Commission next week so this discussion could not have been more helpful.

We also discussed the recent ECJ ruling on stem cell research which not only could have a very negative impact on medical research in the UK but could also put back finding solutions to diseases like Alzheimer's.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Getting out of Deep Water

Whilst the rest of the world discusses whether the Greek people should have a referendum, the European Parliament has been closed for bank holidays.

I spent Monday and Tuesday with members of the Army, Navy and RAF training program in Cornwall teaching future pilots the basics of survival should they ever have to land at sea. This was part of the Armed Forces Parliament Scheme which aims to help politicians to have a slightly better understanding of the military. Most of the days I have spent with them have been "briefings" so this was a bit different.

The equipment is basic but it would save lives if disaster was to occur, and all the trainees were keen to know how to use it well. The first day was lectures and a pool trial. The second day was repeating the same at sea - we were all much better the second time despite the much more difficult conditions.

The final exercise involved being sent off the end of a boat to swim to an upside down life raft, right it and then make the raft "safe" and secure, send out signals to help rescuers find the raft and eventually be rescued.

The trainees were extremely brave, despite many of them not having a great deal of experience of the sea. My trainee partner got tangled in some loose ribbing whilst performing the exercise. I gave some suggestions of how to prevent this, which the trainers have promised to look into.... though I was worried by the chain of bureaucracy that I may have set off. I was very surprised that there was little comment from trainees on how to make improvements to their equipment.

Despite having done a bit of offshore sailing in my past I had never thought about how exactly one activates a distress flare. Its not as simple as it says on the packet - so it was definitely helpful to be allowed to try one out..

I have been given a little eyeopener into how important time in training is. Thank you.