Honeyball’s Weekly Round Up

Labour Party

Thursday of this week was Equal Pay Day. This symbolises the date on which women – who earn 15% less than men in the UK – effectively cease to be rewarded for the work they do.

A TUC report published on the same day suggested that in some industries the difference between male and female pay can be as high as £16,000 – the equivalent of a London Living Wage job. The best paid roles were shown to be worst affected, with female health professionals – who receive £25 an hour compared to the £50 earned by male equivalents – faring especially badly.

Figures from across the political spectrum attacked the continued existence of the gender pay gap, with TUC general Secretary Frances O’Grady calling it a “huge injustice” and Chancellor George Osborne admitting there remains “a long way to go”. However, Conservatives – including Equalities Secretary Maria Miller – opened themselves up to accusations of paying lip service to the issue by refusing to adopt affirmative measures. Miller said on Friday “I don’t believe government intervention will work”, arguing instead that “cultural change” is the answer.

That we still have a gender pay gap more than 40 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed is a sign that ‘cultural’ changes do not come about in isolation. They require some kind of socio-economic stimulus from government. The UK’s post-austerity backslide on gender equality highlights this; laissez-faire policies have penalised women more than men, and we have fallen behind many of Europe’s more proactive Member States. Since 2010, for example, Holland, France and Italy have all, thanks to binding legislation, accelerated far faster than us on the subject of getting women into boardrooms.

Insisting on voluntary solutions to close the gender pay gap means that the effort to achieve gender equality continues to swim against the tide. The overwhelming momentum of more immediate marketplace drivers is simply too strong. If the elimination of the pay gap is ever to be achieved then a more substantial commitment from government is required.

The end of the week, meanwhile, saw the City of London Corporation’s Lord Mayor’s Show at Michaelmas ‘Common Hall’. At the event on Saturday Fiona Woolf formally took office as Lord Mayor of London, becoming the 686th appointee to the role.

Woolf is an impressive candidate, who has fought her way to the top of the legal profession and been given a fellowship at Harvard. The Lord Mayor’s position has been an almost exclusively male domain since it was created in 1189. Woolf’s election makes her just the second woman to hold to post – the first being the 1983 incumbent Dame Mary Donaldson.

A ratio of 343:1 for gender representation is unimpressive by any standards. It falls a long way short of Lord Davies’ 25% target for women on boards!

The City of London’s gender pay gap currently stands at 33%. This means that, despite being a place which sets the economic tone nationally, it actually lags behind the rest of the country for women’s pay. Let’s hope that Woolf’s appointment symbolises a wider commitment to gender equality from those in the financial sector.

MEPs take action to end the gender pay gap

Labour Party

You may have already read this post on the British Influence website. However, I am posting it on this blog just in case you missed it.

Last week saw MEPs set the goal of removing the pay disparity between men and women by 2020. The Resolution on Equal Pay – which went through decisively at thr European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg on Thursday – saw the 28 Member States make a collective promise to create a fairer pay deal. The resolution is particularly good news for women in the UK, which currently has the 6th worst gender pay gap of any EU economy.

The battle for gender equality has stalled in Britain since the recession hit in 2007, with many other European countries pulling ahead. British women are currently paid 20% less than men – a figure which rises to a terrifying 33% for jobs in The City of London. The problem is particularly bad for older women and those working in the private sector, where the pay gap is 24% (compared to 17% in the public sector).

Britain’s 1970 Equal Pay Act made it illegal for women to be paid less than men doing the same job, but it did not tackle the systemic reasons that mean women continue to earn less. Working women in the UK are twice as likely as men to be in low paid employment, and three times as liable to work part-time. They also continue to be penalised for motherhood.

The Resolution on Equal Pay urges the British Government – and others across Europe – to overcome these underlying issues. It puts an imperative on domestic politicians, asking that they reduce their countries’ respective gender pay gaps at a rate of 5% a year. For me the Resolution is a vindication of Britain’s involvement in Europe. It is a classic example of the EU leading from the front; collectively signing up to a positive goal, and working to help individual countries achieve it.

To be clear, this Resolution is only the first step in a long process towards gender equality. It symbolises a joint commitment by EU countries to eliminate the gap, but as yet it has not been enshrined in law. But I and others in the European Parliament are determined to making the 2020 vision for gender equality a reality, and will be pursuing the Resolution through to the next stage.

The most important thing in doing this is that we build a strong consensus on the subject. UKIP’s MEPs – all of whom are male – and other right-of-centre groups did their best to block the Resolution by abstaining or voting against last week. As the prospect of gender equality draws closer it is likely that they will step up their opposition – something which we must work together to contest.

The ideal set out in last week’s resolution – a 2020 Europe where women earn the same as men – may seem hard to imagine, but it is entirely achievable. All that is required is that progressive forces from across the political parties work together to make it happen.

Eurozone banking union could challenge the City of London

Labour Party

Monday’s extract from the latest tranche of Alastair Campbell’s diaries, The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq, published in the “Guardian” is very telling on the Euro question.

According to Campbell, Blair was well and truly thwarted by Brown. What is more, Tony Blair feared “we were making the wrong decision for the wrong reasons”.

While the bickering, not to say in-fighting, between Blair and Brown as told by Alastair Campbell makes depressing reading, there is no doubt in my mind that Tony Blair’s instincts on the Euro were right, even in the light of the current crisis in the Eurozone.

When British commentators talk about the Euro they all, almost without exception, take a congratulatory, not to say patronising, tone. The UK is deemed to have done the right thing by staying outside the Euro. We are not, after all, embroiled in the current economic problems.

Except of course, we are. The recession is deeper here than elsewhere in the EU. Britain’s double dip recession matches the economic problems of almost any save the most deficient Eurozone country. Unemployment in the UK stands at 8.4%. This is higher than Germany at 5.4% and Holland and Luxembourg (5.2%). True, there are also very high unemployment in the Eurozone, especially in the member states facing huge problems such as Greece and Spain where the rates are in the low twenties. Overall, the Eurozone total in 11.2%, more than Britain, but not much more given that the peripheral countries are in such difficulties.

As readers of this blog know, I very much support what was the Tony Blair position on the Euro in 2003, the year Campbell features. In a world where economies are intertwined, it would have made a lot of political sense for the UK to join the Euro at that time.

The UK has once again failed to join the European project at the right time. Former Permanent Representative to the EU Sir Stephen Wall is quite clear in his excellent book “A Stranger in Europe” that Britain would have not faced many of the issues it found itself dealing with regarding the European Union if we had been there at the beginning rather than leaving it until 1973 to join.

The same, I fear, will happen in relation to the Euro. If a country is not there at the start they stand to miss out on crucial decisions, finding that the architecture has been put in place without their input. This is, of course, why the UK is uncomfortable with some aspects of the European Union, especially when it comes to agriculture.

The Eurozone seems to be going in the direction of some kind of banking union. This will obviously have an effect on the City of London. Being outside whatever kind of union emerges may well prove problematic for our financial services industry. We in Britain should ask ourselves whether we really want a powerful neighbour with a unified banking system which will be able to challenge, not to say get the better of, our most important industry.

The True Consequences of Exclusion from Eurozone Decisions

Labour Party

As expected Eurozone leaders have reached agreement. The three-pronged arrangement means that private banks holding Greek debt will face a loss of 50%. Banks must also raise more capital to protect them against losses resulting from any future government defaults. The final part of the deal approved a mechanism to boost the Eurozone’s main bailout fund to one trillion Euros (£880bn; $1.4tn) with the framework for the new fund to be put in place in November.

From a UK perspective there is one thing above all which should send alarm bells ringing. The UK government was not at the table. The Tories have completely blown it. True, Cameron was allowed to be on the fringes of the preliminary get togethers, but when it became real he was excluded. This is a massive body blow. Britain is a major economy and the City of London one of the most important financial centres in the world. Decisions taken in the Eurozone are fundamental toBritain’s economy. 

We would do well to compare Britain’s exclusion this time round to the events in the autumn of 2008 when the world banking system was in meltdown. The Labour Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown, was a key player in the Eurozone summits in Paris, preparing a common European position for the G8 and G20 meetings. Brown received recognition from all quarters for the leadership he showed at that time. All Cameron and Osborne have achieved is damaging exclusion.

The Tory leadership continues to make a virtue of not being there, viewing the EU as some alien body which is out to get us. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s the Tories who are out to get us. When they talk about repatriation of powers from the EU to theUK- a near impossibility in itself – what they are really seeking is the unravelling of social protection.

The Tories want to take back powers on health and safety, environmental standards and consumer protection, amongst other things. The EU has, over the years, maintained and improved conditions at work, introduced legislation on water and air quality and set up a system of food labelling, to name but a few measures which benefit all of us. The Tories view this kind of social legislation as expensive and unnecessary. They want to repatriate powers to do away with many things which are of great benefit to the British people.   

It was this same antediluvian attitude that led the Tories to take themselves out of the mainstream centre-right political group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, and ally with what Nick Clegg described as “a bunch of nutters”. This knee-jerk move to secure David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party greatly angered centre right leaders inEurope, including Angela Merkel. Indeed, the current government’s exclusion from the Eurozone decision making process may have something to do with this history. The Tories cannot have it both ways. If they choose to attack the EU they will surely come a cropper.

However, it’s not just the Conservative Party who will suffer. Since they are the major governing party, it is the British people as a whole. It’s becoming ever clearer that the Tories want to do away with so much of what we as a country take for granted and take us backwards fast. That would be extremely bad new for the vast majority of us who live and work in the United Kingdom.

Tax on Financial Transactions

Labour Party

Given the recent publicity about the “Robin Hood” tax, it’s perhaps not surprising that it was given an honourable mention at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week.  An amendment to a resolution on the Conference on Climate Change held in Copenhagen in December suggested a tax on financial transactions, the Tobin tax named after the economist James Tobin who first mooted the idea, to support international climate action.

Although the amendment was defeated due to lack of support from the centre-right and right wing groupings in the European Parliament, I was pleased that many, though sadly not a majority, of MEPs joined with those campaigning to make the Tobin tax a reality. 

We know that Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all been strong advocates of  what is becoming known as the “Robin Hood” tax.  You couldn’t find a much better line up than that.  Gordon Brown, in fact, started to lobby for support for the Tobin tax in the City of London in the autumn of last year and I understand the International Monetary Fund is looking at such a plan, despite opposition from the United States.

It is, of course, the international nature of the Tobin tax which it such an ideal tool for raising money for matters which require action in more than one country.  The recently launched campaign in Britain by comedy writer Richard Curtis and popular actor Bill Nighy for such a a “Robin Hood” tax to be levied on banks is rare indeed in that it is popular for its own sake and targeted at an unpopular group – the banks.  Richard Curtis’s proposal to impose a 0.5% tax on international bankers’ transactions could raise up to £250 billion per year, a huge sum half of which would be retained by the country where the deal took place and the other half split between tackling climate change and reducing global poverty.  The plan targets institutions not ordinary people and is set at a level which should not hurt the banks.

You may have thought that even bankers would be hard pushed to oppose a tax which could do so much good at little cost to themselves.  Sadly, this does not appear to be the case as Goldman Sachs apparently orchestrated moves to vote against the “Robin Hood” tax on the campaign’s website.  Fortunately the Goldman Sachs ruse, which showed both the utmost arrogance and disregard for the plight of so many people on our planet, was rumbled.  However, the fact that they tried it on in such a way shows that bankers still have a long way to go before they think the same way as the majority.  

Back in the European Parliament, you will, of course, not be surprised to know that the Tories voted against the Tobin tax amendment.  Although the resolution in question was not legislative and hence only a recommendation to EU member states, European Parliament support for a Tobin tax to fund climate change work would have sent a strong signal.  It would also have put us on the same side as Oxfam, Save the Children, Action Aid, many trade unions, most mainstream churches and celebrities such as Bono who are known for the humanitarian work.  It’s a real tragedy that the right wing in Europe prefers to peddle its reactionary ideology rather than supporting moves to combat climate change and reducing world poverty.

European Liaison Meeting with the House of Lords and the House of Commons

Labour Party

Top of the bill at the Tripartite meeting between the House of Lords, House of Commons and the European Parliament was the ever present climate change talks at Copenhagen.  This is undeniably the most important issue facing the world.  This did not, however, stop the two UKIP MEPs present coming out with what were rather feeble attempts to deny the man-made nature of the climate change we are currently suffering.

Although I don’t often attend these Tripartite meetings which are held two to three times a year, I strongly believe they are a good idea.  The meetings keep us all in touch and prevent the two parliaments occupying completely parallel universes where there is no contact whatsoever.

The debate on climate change was a case in point.  The MEPs were able to tell the Lords and MPs that Commission President Barosso intends to fund climate change to the tune of 30 – 50 billion Euros.  A lively debate followed, focusing on developing alternative energy sources and energy saving measures.  Although the economic downturn is making the former more difficult, it is probably helping the latter in which, incidentally, the UK has a good record.

The meeting moved on from climate change to the hugely problematic regulation of hedge funds.  80% of hedge funds in Europe are in the City of London, making this a substantially British issue.  The general feeling of the meeting was that since hedge funds only risk their own money, they are not a problem in the way the banks have shown themselves to be.

And finally, we looked at what seem to most people outside parliamentary procedures the arcane processes used in the European Parliament.  It is, of course, worth noting that since there is a high turnover of MEPs, over half the European Parliament elected earlier this year are new, and may also be struggling with some of these matters.

European Parliament Committees will, of course, be interviewing Commissioners in the middle of January, and there is no cast-iron guarantee that all Commissioners will be confirmed.  It will be made more complicated in that President Barosso has redrawn Commissioner portfolios to some large extent.

One of the main conclusions of this Tripartite meeting was that the Lisbon Treaty has changed the landscape.  Lisbon gives the European Parliament much greater power.  As one of the members of the House of Lords on the Committee succinctly put it, “The Lisbon Treaty has ended the democratic deficit at a stroke.”