Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Finding Fresh Start friends

I have spent the past 48 hours in Warsaw with 3 MPs representing the Fresh Start Project: Therese Coffey, Tim Loughton and Guto Bebb.

If we are to reform our relationship with the EU, we need to be specific about what we want. I have been helping Fresh Start to look at different options of reform in different sectors of policy making, from fishing to farming to financial services and from immigration to energy and the environment.
We are also going to need to find like-minded politicians across Europe who are sympathetic to our vision of rolling back decision-making to national or local governments where appropriate, and encouraging a Free Market ethos for the Single Market. This means reducing barriers to trade, putting competitiveness first and saving taxpayers' money.

Poland is one of the five larger countries in the EU, by population, and the only other one of the "big five" outside the eurozone. It is important for the UK that we have allies outside the eurozone who will help us enshrine the differences between eurozone and non-eurozone countries in the negotiations ahead. It was particularly good to meet one of the senior politicians from Poland who had negotiated the Lisbon Treaty, Anna Fotyga. She explained that she thinks too much power is being given to Brussels institutions in economic decision-making and was very supportive for the need for reform.

Delegations from Fresh Start have already been to Berlin and are moving onwards to Prague, Madrid and Copenhagen.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Local businesses supporting each other in Bedford

I have been in Bedford today with Richard Fuller MP.  He told me about the work being done locally by their "BID" Business improvement district.  Learning from the outstanding examples set by the Games-makers at London 2012,  local businesses are working together to make sure that visitors to the town have the best possible customer experience.   We visited three truly unique independent companies - and it really is impressive.  I will definitely be coming back shopping!   It was good to hear that shop takings are up and the retailers believe that the worst of the recession is behind us.

Richard Fuller MP also came with me to visit the Co-operative Pharmacy in Putnoe.  I've been asking some questions about "parallel trading" of pharmaceuticals in Brussels and the Managing Director of Co-op chemists, John Nuttall had asked to meet.

Richard and I learnt about how local chemists can bring great value to a local area, promoting better health and helping the local community.  John and his staff explained that from time to time it can be challenging to obtain certain medicines and that sometimes this is due to stocks which were initially destined for British patients being sold by wholesalers to buyers in other European countries.   This "parallel trading" does sometimes help to keep prices lower, but shortages are always concerning.   We were told that Department of Health officials are having a good look at the costs and prices charged along the supply chain.  I think it is important to make sure that there are not anti-competitive practices. We need affordable medicines but we also need available medicines.

This was also a good time to discuss the new procedures that are coming into place to help reduce counterfeiting of drugs.  One in four "fake" products captured at borders is a fake drug - and even some prescription drugs have been affected.  In Brussels there are new rules coming into place from 1st July which will mean produces of active ingredients of drugs need to be certified - even from as far afield as India and China.  This should be good for patient safety.  I met the European Commissioner responsible earlier this month  and asked for his reassurance that there should not be any shortfalls in supply during the transition.  It was good to hear from the pharmacists on the ground that they are not seeing any supply issues due to the implementation.

Friday, 17 May 2013

A smarter way of living - delivering skills for young people for the new jobs just round the corner.

I had a great morning at smartLIFE in Cambridge today.   They give hands on practical training in how to build the very best of energy efficient homes.   This is about providing real skills to help people save real money on their energy bills.

Youth unemployment is a big concern - young people often say to me that they want skills which match up to local job needs.  "smartLIFE" works with construction and building companies, local councils and planning authorities to identify what skills will be needed and where.  Then hand in hand with local schools, further education colleges and universities it is matching the training to the jobs that are likely to come on stream.  I also works with schools to identify those 13 -14 year olds who might become the NEETs of the future, and gives them training of real skills.  In addition it runs tailored training programs for plumbers, builders, heating experts, electricians who want to learn about the latest technology - especially in energy efficiency.

The facilities are awesome.   In one building they have the ability to construct entire houses undercover so that trainees can learn safely in all weather conditions.  Down the road where I visited today there are hands-on, real-life working prototypes of solar panels, heat pumps and exchangers.  The group in this photo were learning how to do a test run on the latest generation wood-chip boiler - it will save at least 50% off oil fired boilers.  Given that over 20% of East Anglian households don't have access to mains gas this sort of technology is more and more attractive.

Its not just Cambridge, they have a new facility looking a teaching how to retrofit existing buildings which is based in Wisbech, deep in the Fens.   Peterborough has plans to open a smartLIFE centre teenagers from as far as Kent come for training sessions.  Internationally they exchange ideas with partners in Germany and Sweden.  The boss is on his way to present to a conference in Florida.  There is even interest in Brazil.  This all helps to make sure that the skills being delivered locally are of the highest standards.

smartLIFE have received substantial grants from the EU budget.  Some of these grants have been liberating and enabled development of cutting edge ideas, others have been red tape, rigid and "dusty".  In Europe I have led work for the Conservatives and Reformists on energy efficiency.  Energy prices are ever increasing, energy security is a growing concern, we need to save energy without switching out light.

To help young people we need local solutions which deliver the right skills for the local development.  We don't need top down rigid targets from Brussels - but there is a huge amount we can learn from other areas and other countries too.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A bit of hope for the motorist ...

I am pleased to hear that competition officials have finally sent in the inspector heavies in to ask whether there is price fixing at the petrol pumps.  Prices go up like rockets but down like feathers - why?   The wonderfully hard working MP Robert Halfon started rattling cages on this in the UK last year - and I told him we should ask for an international investigation, these are international companies.   My office, working with Rob's office then tabled the first parliamentary question whichl led to question after question in Europe - as well as an increasingly pathetic responses from officials.   It all went a bit silent for a while ... ominous when things go silent ...  then bang, investigators arrive....  it is nice to think we lit a bit of a touch paper here.

If the oil companies are innocent then we need to think again about causes of our high pump prices.   If  not then motorists deserve to be steering their way to a better deal - Furthermore if this does result in fines the money must come back to the UK and national budgets not be squandered in Brussels.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Seed ban rumours may be a bit overgrown

I am receiving lots of emails from keen gardeners who are concerned about rumours that there is going to be an EU ban on heritage seeds.  I have spoken to the EU Commissioner responsible. Currently there are a number of EU laws that are trying to ensure seeds sold by large manufacturers for agriculture are correctly labelled.  These laws currently require that all seeds should be registered.  This is clearly unworkable and impractical. 

Therefore the Commissioner has proposed to radically simplify the registration and to give specific exemptions for niche seeds and private gardeners as well as a lower compliance level for "traditional seeds" and small companies.

As readers will know I often have  disagreements with comments made by EU commissioners but this time I was more hopeful. I have been campaigning for small businesses to get exemptions from EU laws and it sounds as if these draft proposals intend to do just that.

The new rules are not finalised.  In coming months MEPs will be allowed to table amendments.

I am going to get in touch with Rothamsted Research and John Innes Centre, both leading agricultural research organisations in East Anglia and custodians of heritage seed banks, and will get their advice.   As a gardener I think it's extremely important that we nurture our diverse heritage of plants and we shouldn't allow this European legislation to get too overbearing. I will fight for a rolling back of regulation.