Monday, 29 April 2013

Local Elections - The Only Way is Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Herts

This week is one of the rare “missions” week in the European Parliament - some of my colleagues use this time to fly to far flung places.  I don’t.  I have some meetings around the East of England and will be knocking on doors listening to peoples views in the run up to the local elections.   We don't have local elections in Bedfordshire this year but we do in Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire.

One of things I enjoy most about my job is the great characters I meet -  And many of those are our local councillors.  A few months ago I met Cllr Ray Howard, who has been  representing Canvey Island for decades.   We were visiting the gas storage facility on the Island together with Rebecca Harris MP. Ray taught me more about the history and evolution of Eastern England’s energy supply in that afternoon than I would have learnt in months of reading.   

Ray was fighting for his local residents, explaining why an extension of the plant into LNG would be inappropriate "freeze drying" the local community, pointing out exactly which parts of which local roads need improving and championing the local youth work which the plant helps to fund.

On Saturday afternoon Ray’s grandson turned up in Canvey Island to help his granddad get re-elected.  This caused quite a stir as Ray’s grandson Charlie is @CharlieKing85 one of the stars in TV show “The Only Way is Essex” #TOWIE.   Swarms of fans arrived and Charlie had picture after picture taken.   People were coming up to the street stall and asking for a leaflet.

Standing on a street stall campaigning for local elections isn’t exactly every young persons idea of a cool way to spend Saturday afternoon.  I asked Charlie why he was there.  “Ever since I was little I’ve known that Grandad really cares for Canvey” he replied.  During the morning Charlie spoke to young people about bullying, as we walked back to the car later we talked about his mums work caring for older people and those with dementia.   I was really impressed.  

Local elections are about local people - I hope voters will turn up for Charlie’s Grandad and many other great local councillors this Thursday.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Defending the UK in a global world ...

On St George's day I raced back to London from Brussels to meet with Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Bank of England.

I find myself in the midst of long and extraordinarily complicated discussions over who calls what shots when a cross-border bank fails. This has become extremely topical and just-a-bit-heated since the failure of Cyprus' banks. A real lesson in the dangers and uncertainty created by regulators and politicians when they send out very mixed messages.  

It is also quite an interesting case study of my day job!

I have been following this legislation for a while now.  The failure of Lehman’s, RBS, HBoS and others sparked off thinking at a G20 global level on how regulators might be better able to deal with a bank collapse; by preparing in advance (living wills) and by being able to take a range of different possible actions. This work has been co-ordinated at the global level by the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor Paul Tucker. The EU “Recovery and Resolution Directive (RRD)” is Europe’s attempt to bring this into law.

Paul and his team are quite clear: given the importance of financial services in the UK, we need to be able to work transatlantically UK/US should there be another Lehman’s (God forbid) and in the future we need India and China too. But to keep the pressure on the global deals we need an EU template - preferably before the G20 meeting in the autumn.  Which, when you take into account summer breaks and lead up times to such meetings, really means the BoE want it agreed now.

UKIP would tell you that this sort of thing is all set by unelected bureaucrats. Actually,  to get agreement in Europe it needs to have the agreement of the European Council (i.e. by a vote of the 27 Finance ministers) and by a vote of the European Parliament.   

In the Parliament five MEPs lead the negotiations.  The Rapporteur and his “Shadows” from different political groups. For the past few months we have been working through the hundreds of amendments tabled by members, deciding which ones to re-word and which to bring to a vote of the Parliament’s committee.  We had hoped to vote on Wednesday but on Monday night, after a 5 hour meeting, we had still not finished enough of the complex details and decided to delay. Once the committee has voted, the same five MEPs will then start the 3 way trialogue negotiations with the European Council and the European Commission to see if agreement can be reached. This is the sort of legislation that is massively criss-crossed with red lines - the detail really is devilish. 

In my opinion far too much power is given to the Parliament. I very often I find myself in disagreement with the majority of MEPs. But I also know that, by being in the room, sometimes I manage to move the direction of pieces of text.   On Monday night, for example, whilst I was battling on bank recoveries, my colleague Ashley Fox MEP was standing in for me and defending key UK interests of mortgage regulation.  If the British Conservatives had not been in the room on those negotiations for the past year we would have ended up with an EU ban on Buy-to-Let mortgages, many first time buyer mortgages and shared equity loans. 

Yes, the EU legislates far too much, yes much of what the EU does should be left to national legislation - but as long as we are in the EU it is vital that UK MEPs turn up for meetings.  And if one day the UK leaves the EU then we will still need to find a way to make sure that UK interests are protected.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Just one vote really can make a difference.

Whilst out canvassing for the Council elections one of our helpers said he wished he knew more about what happens in the European Parliament.  I have promised to restart writing the Blog more regularly.

Votes in the EP can be very close.   On Thursday we won a vote of the 754 members just 7.    It does feel good when ones own vote make a difference, especially as the difference was due to the handful of Conservative MEPs who travelled back to Strasbourg late the night before after attending the  extra-ordinarily powerful funeral of Lady Thatcher - everyone will have their own moments of that day, mine was the total stillness of the congregation as Elgar’s Nimrod floated across the cathedral as the close of the service.

Thursday’s vote stopped an EU tax on Ship owners.  Even my 11 year old son pointed out that ships move, if we tax them when registered in Europe they will use non EU ports.    

Over two years ago we lost a vote in Committee on a similarly crazy EU tax proposal.  We lost that one by just one vote.  I remain furious that the UK UKIP MEP on the committee left an empty chair in the room that day, as he so often does.  We could have stopped this whole battle years ago if UKIP had turned up to vote.  The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), if set unilaterally in Europe will cause financiers to relocate their transactions, but pensioners, businesses and small investors who can not move overseas will be left paying the bill.  George Osborne was right to veto it at the EU level.  Now proposals from 11 other countries seek to impose it again - and the new structure will push up the cost of borrowing for companies and governments.  UK borrowing is already too high, the last thing we need is extra costs.   So I am delighted with the decision that the UK is going to take the EU to court over this crazy tax proposal.  

I’ve just had a great couple of days knocking on doors with local candidates for the up-coming County Council election.  I’ve been out and about in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Essex in the past 2 weeks.   The feedback from our campaigners is actually extremely positive.   Yes there are bound to be mid term blues, and there are patchy challenges from what I call the “so-called-independents-who-used-to-be-affiliated-with-mainstream-parties-but-were-not-reselected-usually-because-they-didn't-do-any-work”.  Yes there are a few more UKIP candidates and there are a few glossy posters, but my feedback from the doorsteps suggests that blue East Anglia is definitely not Eastleigh.  These are local elections, and it is important to vote.

This was all beautifully summed up in a blog by Cllr Nick Clarke, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council yesterday.

In Norfolk on Friday I took a break from campaigning to catch up with Cromer Crab fisherman and local district councillor John Lee.   He puts out to sea single handed before dawn every morning to lift over 100 crab pots.  He then works through the day to cook and process the crabs, before racing to Council meetings.   As a volunteer he chairs the Fisheries local action group in North Norfolk.  John has been one of the experts who has taught me so much about the need to reform fishing policy - it felt so good when we voted to end fish discards recently.  However, I was concerned to hear that money which has been promised to support our small boat fleets, like the Cromer crabmen, is being tied up in Brussels red tape.  I’ve promised to investigate.  

John explained how as a district councillor he has helped 3,000 local residents form an Energy Club to buy gas and electricity.  This is saving each household roughly £10 a month on bills.  Good Councillors really can make a difference - they are worth voting for on May 2.