Tory-led Coalition refuses system to reduce road deaths

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All new cars sold in the EU should be able to be able to dial emergency services when they are involved in a serious accident. Having all cars equipped with an eCall system could save up to 2,500 lives a year. The European Parliament, which passed the report on this subject earlier this week at the plenary session in Strasbourg, hopes the proposal will be introduced in 2015.

Most EU member states have now signed up to the initiative, but predictably our Tory-led Coalition has not yet backed it. Sadly France is the only other EU member state to share the UK’s equivocation.

The British Government’s complacency is astonishing. Transport Minister Mike Penning is reported on the BBC website saying, “Britain has some of the safest roads in the world and technology has an important role to play in this, but it is important that each initiative is carefully considered on its merits.

“After considering the results of independent research we are concerned that the benefits of making eCall mandatory in all new cars will not justify the cost of implementing it in the UK. We have decided, therefore, that it would not be appropriate for the UK to support mandatory installation of eCall at this stage.

“However, calls from vehicles equipped with a private eCall system are already supported by UK emergency call centres.”

In other words, it’s all right if you can afford to pay.

The way the eCall will work is remarkably simple. A damaged car will make a 112 emergency call (eCall) as soon as its sensors (e.g. airbag sensors) register a crash. It could also be activated manually by pushing a special button in a car. The system will automatically transmit data about location and time of a crash to the nearest emergency response centre.

Member States will, however, have to upgrade their infrastructure so that eCalls are efficiently passed on to emergency services.

Currently, only 0.7% of all passenger vehicles in the EU are equipped with automatic emergency call systems. The eCall device is estimated to cost less than €100 per new car to install – a small price to pay for the number of lives which could be saved.

The Con-Dem Coalition defend their position on the grounds that road accidents are low in the UK. Britain may have safe roads, but no roads are free from accidents. The eCall system would certainly save British lives. Unless it revises its attitude, this Coalition Government could well be responsible for deaths on the road which they could have prevented.

Cameron’s shilly-shallying on Europe is not good for the country

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The Tories are well and truly getting themselves in a twist on the EU.Europe, as we all know, was always their Achilles heels, a fault line which is getting deeper by the day.

By wading into these turbulent waters, big beast Eurosceptic Dr Liam Fox has heightened their problems and shown us an even more divided party. But it’s not just the Conservative Party in the frame. Since they are the leading part of the Con-Dem Coalition Government, this is something which affects the British people as a whole.

In a speech given tellingly to the right-wing think tank, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Dr Fox, according to ConservativeHome defied “the wisdom of the Conservative leadership by arguing that if we are not able to renegotiate significant powers back for Britain, we should leave the European Union”.   

It is, of course, bad enough that a former Cabinet Minister should attack his Party’s leadership in this way. It’s made even worse by David Cameron’s utter ineptness. Does he support a referendum or doesn’t her?  Liam Fox and 100 other Tory MPs think he doesn’t while others believe he might.

If it weren’t so serious, I would say that brewery and a lot to drink come to mind. Britain’s relationship with the European Union matters very much to our country. I can do no better than quote Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander writing in the Guardian on Saturday: “My fear is that the shambles over the last few days reveals more about the prime minister’s weakness in the party than the strength of his convictions about Europe. Whatever your view on Britain’s relationship with the EU, we all want the government’s approach to an issue this significant to start from only one place: consideration of what is best for Britain. I regret that this prime minister seems to be more concerned with managing party interests than governing in the national interest when it comes to Europe.”

Our national interest is at the very minimum to have a clear and well thought out strategy for Europe. It does no harm to repeat that the EU single market is the UK’s largest trading bloc taking 40 per cent of our exports. This involves more than simply getting goods there. As Douglas Alexander said in the same article: “…the single market is not just about “free trade” as the Eurosceptics misleadingly imply. It’s about far more than that: removing barriers behind the borders – and that requires common rules with a commission and court to enforce them. And where we have shared goals – from tackling climate change to cross-border crime and human trafficking – in an era of billion-person countries and trillion-pound economies – we cannot afford to give up on ways that help amplify our voice and protect our interests.”

It beggars belief that the Prime Minister is playing party politics with such an important matter. The real problem is that Cameron has not really “detoxified” the Tory brand. He hasn’t had the courage to do what Neil Kinnock achieved for the Labour Party in the 1980s. The British Conservative Party now has more extremists than before the 2010 general election.

Cameron seems to think appeasing the Eurosceptics will get him off the hook. Such misplaced judgment defies all historical precedents. Cameron has isolated the UK by pulling out of the European People’s Party, the centre-right group which also happens to be the largest political group in the European Parliament. Having annoyed his natural allies, Cameron now thinks he can renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU. Total and utter pie in the sky for reasons explained in some detail in other posts on this blog, and rather pleasingly put forward by Andrew Neill on the BBC Sunday Politics programme.

The BBC World Service is important and should be properly funded

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There appears to be no end to our economic woes. Britain’s economy slipped into its second recession since the start of the financial crisis around the turn of the year, and fears of a longer slump have been rising as companies hold back investment. What is more, there has been a sharp deterioration in the outlook for the global economy over the last six weeks.

All this has apparently caused Bank of England governor Mervyn King to back an extra £50bn of quantative easing,

Explaining his position to the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, King said, “What has particularly concerned me in the last several months – why I have voted for more easing policy – was my concern about the worsening I see in the position in Asia and other emerging markets, adding “…my colleagues in the United States are more concerned than they were at the beginning of the year about what is happening to the American economy”.

According to the Guardian, Mervyn King went on to say, “We are in the middle of a deep crisis, with enormous challenges to put our own banking system right and challenges for the rest of the world that they are struggling with.”

It is now quite clear  that Britain has not recovered from the 2008/2009 slump that has left many Britons worse off, and fears are rising that another prolonged recession would do lasting damage to the economy.

You would have thought that the Tory-led Coalition Government would realise that it needs all the help it can get to make sure Britain’s interests are recognised in other countries and that the damage caused by the economic crisis is minimised across the world. One way of achieving this aim is through the soft power wielded by the BBC World Service.

The global impact of the World Service was, in fact, graphically illustrated last week when Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi toured the organisation’s offices, meeting many of the broadcasters she listened to while under house arrest  in Rangoon.

Unbelievably, at the end of 2010 the Foreign Office under William Hague decided to slash the World Service budget by around 20%, or £46m a year, by 2014. As a result the BBC in January 2011 confirmed plans to close five of its 32 World Service language services, estimating that audiences will fall by more than 30 million, from 180 million to 150 million a week.

As if this wasn’t enough, the BBC executive who runs the World Service, Peter Horrocks, has recently asked his journalists to come up with schemes to raise money.

This is surely no way to treat the World Service which truly justifies the over used soubriquet “national treasure”. The cut to its funding by the current Tory-led Government was a major misjudgement which totally underestimated importance of the World Service in boosting Britain’s standing abroad, a vital requirement in these perilous economic times.

I recently had an inkling of how the BBC is perceived when a Swedish MEP told me just how honoured and overjoyed he was to be invited on to the BBC “The Record Europe” programme. David Cameron, William Hague and the other luminaries in the Coalition Cabinet would do well to take such views on board. The BBC is the face and voice of the UK across the world and it benefits Britain enormously. It would be a real tragedy if political dogma were allowed to prejudice this huge asset.

Cameron targets women as he seeks to slash benefits

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David Cameron’s desire to cut welfare benefits is as predictable as it is appalling. There is always something deeply distasteful, not to say enraging, when a Prime Minister who has enjoyed every privilege our country has to offer seeks to reduce the meagre resources provided by the social security system to Britain’s poorest.

David Cameron’s proposal to take housing benefit away from the under 25s and his glib throw-away line that they can live with their parents, shows just how arrogant and out of touch he is. Supposing the parents are unemployed? Has he thought that it may be one rather than two parents. They, or she, may live in over-crowded conditions. Even worse, the young person may have left for personal reasons.

I am tempted to ask what planet our Prime Minister lives on when he says, “For literally millions, the passage to independence is several years living in their childhood bedroom as they save up to move out while for many others, it’s a trip to the council where they can get housing benefit at 18 or 19 – even if they’re not actively seeking work.”

On the figures from the Department of Work and Pensions which show that, out of the 385,000 under-25s claiming housing benefit, 204,000 have children, Cameron takes a predictably unsympathetic view which takes no account of the children involved. He believes it is necessary to look at the “interaction of the benefit system with the choices people make about having a family.”

I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad that this housing benefit proposal and the others in the package announced yesterday seem to be Cameron’s own, not those of either the Conservative Party as a whole or the Government.

There is, of course, more. Equally appalling is the idea that people on benefit do not receive assistance for children if they have more than three. It is no exaggeration to say that this attempt to police fertility smacks of China’s one parent policy and campaigns in India to forcibly sterilise women.

These are just two items in a much longer list. Cameron is not only harking back to the Victorian dark ages when to be poor was the worst possible sin. He is also covertly targeting women. Since women bear the major responsibility for bringing up children they will be disproportionately hit if Cameron’s ideas come to fruition.

Cameron is attacking all people on benefits, branding them scroungers with seemingly no thought for the overwhelming majority who wish to work. Thanks to the policies of his Government the rate of unemployment is over eight per cent. Women have lost their jobs at a faster rate than men. Many would like to work again but are unable to find a job. That’s the stark reality not Mr Cameron’s idea that all those who claim benefits are either scroungers, feckless or both.


Britian would be a political pygmy without the EU

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Britain is at present sleep walking into political pygmy land without even realising where the country is heading. The euro crisis has provoked the ultimate challenge not only to the future of the European Union but also to that of the United Kingdom. As the EU possibly gears itself up to take hard decisions about further fiscal integration, with the inevitable consequence of further political co-operation, the UK would do well to consider its long-term future.

Britain’s decision not to join the euro in the late 1990s was undoubtedly based on sound economic criteria. Unfortunately most UK commentators on both economics and politics remain smugly sure that the current sovereign debt crisis in the euro zone vindicates the decision not to join the single currency. Few, including David Cameron’s coalition government, are, however, giving any thought to the future political realities of Britain’s current position.

The euro zone’s only realistic response to the Greek crisis and the looming chasm in Spain is to think beyond monetary union. In an incredible leader on 20 May, the Sunday Timescame out in favour of a united states of Europe, referring to Robert Mundell, a Nobel prize-winning economist, who set out the conditions under which a single European currency could function – fiscal union, wage flexibility and the ability of people to move between states to find work.

While the Mundell scenario is, I am sure, too much for Europe’s present leaders, the Economist this week came up with a far more acceptable proposal for greater financial and fiscal control at EU level. Although the end result of such moves would not be political integration as it is generally understood, it would inevitably give the EU more power and more political clout.  

It is my firm belief that moves towards further political integration, at least for the 17 EU member states in the euro will be the long-term outcome of the euro zone crisis. The 17 may increase to 22, 23 or even 24 since joining the euro was a condition of EU accession in 2004. Were this to happen, the two-speed EU model, often touted as the answer to Britain’s semi-detached position towards the European Union, simply will not work.

The British people, our government and our media need to be made aware of the consequences of Britain being outside a further integrated European Union.

The world is currently, and always has been, divided into power blocks, generally based on some recognised common interest. Once the euro zone crisis metamorphoses into a stronger European Union there will be four such blocks – the United States of America, China, India and, of course, the European Union. (I have excluded Russia as its future remains unpredictable).

Britain needs to take on board what it will mean for us if we were to position ourselves outside a European Union which is politically stronger with more integrated fiscal and financial arrangements. The only possible conclusion is that further European integration without the UK will isolate us in the wider world. If Britain wants to get anywhere near the position we held in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Britannia really did rule the waves, we have to be a real leader in the European Union. There is quite simply no other way.

Therefore, in order to remain at the global top table, Britain needs to take some very tough decisions. If we remain detached from the EU and let the European political project develop without us, we will no longer be one of the world’s leading political powers. We will not have that crucial “x” factor, the sense of being a world leader with the pride that goes with it. Our only hope of achieving something resembling our old imperial confidence is to be at the heart of Europe both politically as well as economically.

The European Union, the bold phoenix to emerge from the ashes of the Second World War, is one of the most visionary political projects in modern times. The EU’s success has been to unite a continent fractured and constantly at war since the fall of the Roman Empire. Remarkably, this twentieth century coming together was voluntary rather than enforced by brutal power. It is now time to move the EU forward with Britain playing a vital role at the heart of Europe.

The Tories’ do not really believe in their plans to win back women

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Last week an email was leaked that originated from number 10 that contained policy suggestions of how to win back the dwindling support from women.

The Tories’ cynical attitude towards female voters was outlined starkly in the document. Examples include a proposal to criminalise forced marriage because the “signal sent out by opting not to criminalise is a bad one” – not because forced marriage is a terrible abuse of human rights but because it looks bad that it is allowed it to happen.

Although the leaking of this document means that their sly tactics are exposed, I don’t think women would have bought the Tories’ newfound concern for them either way, because their attitude towards women has always been pretty transparent.

For instance, despite calling for fathers to be “more responsible” for their children, the coalition still proposed to charge single parents (overwhelmingly women) to access the Child Support Agency. It has now been revealed that nearly half of the parents who use the service would be unable to afford the fees…  The Tories have said no word about rethinking these plans.

In addition, despite promising to be the most “family-friendly” government ever, leaked documents emerged that suggested abolishing maternity rights as a means of aiding the economy. This shows that for all the rhetoric, the Tories have no problem making collateral damage of the women of the UK.

One of the issues that struck fear into the heart of many British women was the attempt by Nadine Dorries to restrict access to abortion. The right to abortion is one that women of this country fought long and hard for and prize dearly, whether or not they ever chose to use it. Cameron, however, didn’t even care enough about the issue to read Nadine’s proposals before offering his support. Only when the protestors appeared on his front door did he bother to actually read the small print – whereupon he made another (now characteristic) hasty U-turn.

Altogether it appears to me that the vast majority of the Tory front bench view the women of this country as inconvenient vote holders – a group that needs to be considered because of their power to lose them the next election but for whom they hold no real respect or understanding. Cameron’s own treatment of women in the house has on several occasions blatantly displayed his contempt for the other sex.

The Tories’ stumbling block in the next election might well be the women’s vote. Although they recognise that women constitute the main casualties of their policies and are planning to try and remedy the problem, their hearts just aren’t in it and almost certainly never will be.

More Women trafficked into Britain as the Tory-led Coalition axes the Poppy Project

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The Tory-led Government recently announced  it is to withdraw funding from the Poppy Project, a charity providing support and accommodation to women who have been trafficked into prostitution or domestic servitude. The Poppy Project has done excellent work over the years and it is one of the biggest and most established organisations of its kind. I have had contact with the Poppy Project on a number of occasions and am full of admiration for the work they have done.

Hard on the heels of the Poppy Project axing, I was further shocked to read an article in The Guardian yesterday about one Moldovan woman’s experience of being trafficked inEurope.

The 18-year-old referred to in the article was found working as a prostitute inLondon. The British immigration officials who reviewed her case deemed her to be in no danger if she returned to Moldova  so she was sent back. Her traffickers then tracked her down and raped and tortured her. The young woman was subsequently sent to Israel and then back to the UK to work again as a prostitute.

The Home Office agreed last week to pay the woman significant damages in recognition of the crass behaviour and errors of judgment made by the British authorities. Small compensation indeed for what she has been through.

Cases like these, where vulnerable women are sent from theUK back to potentially dangerous situations in their home country, are becoming more and more common. Yet, rather than investing more in resources to help victims of trafficking, the Tory-led Government is determined to cut charities with experience in this area.

True, the government has awarded The Salvation Army a contract to provide support to trafficked women supposedly in place of the Poppy Project. However, the loss in expertise involved in this wholly unnecessary and wrong-headed move may well mean that large numbers of trafficked women not identified as such. Trafficking could therefore become ever more of a growth industry.

David Cameron claims that tackling sex trafficking is a priority for the Tory-led coalition. But his actions speak louder than words. As funding is removed from women’s organisations like Poppy Project, I am sure we will see increasing numbers of cases like the one reported yesterday in The Guardian.

Please support the Justice for All Campaign and sign the Pledge

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With the implementation of deep legal aid cuts in the coming months, whole swathes of society will find themselves deprived of access to justice. The Coalition’s claims that the move represents a sensible cost-cutting measure, which will challenge the existing ‘culture of litigation’ whilst protecting those in genuine need. Unlikely, I think, since their claim rests on the flawed assumption that those who seek advice on welfare, divorce, employment, and immigration (areas to be excluded from aid), are not at serious risk and therefore undeserving recipients of state assistance.

As is so often the case, women will suffer disproportionately when the cuts take effect, a fact acknowledged in the Government’s own equalities review. Of particular concern is the fact that aid will be available to women seeking divorce only where they have evidence of physical abuse; those suffering psychological victimisation must either endure their situation, or represent themselves in proceedings, a risky and challenging undertaking.

In an effort to challenge the attack on equal access to justice, a coalition of organisations, including the Fawcett Society, who have been shocked by the implications of Government ‘reform’ proposals have united to form the Justice for All Campaign. By taking a few moments to add your name to the pledge, you can help publicise the risks posed and, hopefully, force the ConDems to re-think this callous cut.  Please click on the button below to make your pledge:

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The Coalition will not sign the new EU Rules to combat Human Trafficking

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Earlier today the European Parliament approved new EU rules to crack down on human trafficking.

On 31 August I blogged that the coalition was refusing to opt into these proposals.  This is still their position and it is to the utter discredit of the Con-Dem government that the new rules will not apply in Britain.  

David Cameron has obviously decided he would rather appease his eurosceptic backbenchers by sitting on the sidelines while other governments act. This is nothing short of disgraceful.

Human trafficking involves the illegal exploitation of highly vulnerable people, mostly women and children. I simply can’t understand why the government has chosen to opt out of these proposals.

Trafficking is a crime that shows no respect for international borders. Acting together with other EU countries is the obvious way to protect these vulnerable people and to stop this form of modern day slavery.

I again urge the government to show that it is serious about human rights and that, despite the Eurosceptic backbenchers, it wants to protect vulnerable women by agreeing to sign up to these plans and to work with European partners to stop this evil trade.

Experts pan the Coalition’s Plans to cut Sure Start

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As rapporteur in the European Parliament Culture and Education Committee on early years learning across Europe, I am totally against the Coalition’s plan to cut the Sure Start programme.

My worst fears were confirmed last week when I was privileged to chair the morning session of an important conference in Brussels on early years education and care (ECEC). Organised by Working for Inclusion, the conference was supported by Children in Scotland and the Scottish Government and attended by a number of prominent children’s organisations including Eurochild and the Comenius Foundation for Child Development.

Among the impressive list of contributors were Bronwen Cohen , Head of Children in Scotland, John Bennett and Peter Moss. John Bennett works for the OECD as a senior consultant to the Early Childhood Policy Review and Peter Moss is Professor of Early Childhood Provision at the Institute of Education, University of London. He was the Coordinator of the European Commission Childcare Network from 1986-96, and also edited Children in Europe from 2002-09. We were also pleased to have two representatives present from the European Commission, Margarida Gameiro from DG Education and Culture, and Marie-Anne Paraskevas from DG Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities. Stig Lund, from the European Trade Union Committee for Education, also said a few words.

All the speakers highlighted the vital contribution that high quality ECEC services can make to the public good. Families with children under five are at a higher risk of poverty than any other group. While ECEC services are not a ‘cure all’ solution to the problem of unequal and unjust societies, the contribution they can make to helping kids get the best start in life can’t be overlooked.

They stressed, however, that services should be universal, rather than targeted. This is why the Coalition’s planned cuts to Sure Start are so worrying. If, under their new scheme, Sure Start centres only target the poorest families, then it will lead to stigmatisation, which in turn will reduce take up. The Coalition must start listening to experts, rather than simply cutting education funding with impunity.