Business for Britain’s suggestions remind us of why we are pro-European

Labour Party
This blog post recently appeared on Labour List. Since it’s a very important issue, I am posting it again on this blog

Proposals recently put forward should remind those of us on the left of the need to fight the good fight when it comes to Europe.

A set of suggestions put to the government, previewed in the Daily Telegraph, have been compiled by the right-wing Eurosceptic lobby group Business for Britain. They are part of its effort to have certain UK companies made exempt from EU guidelines. A paper released by the organisation argued that British firms should be allowed to “opt out of some of the more onerous European regulations” in order to enhance “competitiveness”. They say doing so would save the UK £7 billion a year (a figure, incidentally, around a tenth of that which the CBI estimate that we gain each year from being in Europe).

That the man making the Business for Britain case is billionaire and former Tory Treasurer Peter Cruddas gives a sense of exactly where the group is coming from. Cruddas has joined Business for Britain’s eight man board – at present headed up by Matthew Elliott, founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance – with the stated intention of “changing the terms of Britain’s EU membership”. His anti-EU offensive this week has centred on the apparently stifling level of “red tape” Britain is subjected to by Europe.

Presenting Euroscepticism as an attack on bureaucracy is a common – and unfortunately fairly effective – rhetorical device among those on the right. In enables protection for workers to be brushed aside as needless officialdom – vital safeguards on the financial sector to be dismissed as administrative window-dressing. It frames the debate in a way that, at first glance, is compelling to an outsider – no one wants more red tape, after all, do they? – but which in reality seeks to undermine employee rights and let businesses operate unchecked.

The supposed “red tape” currently binding EU firms includes regulations which protect workers from exploitation and discrimination, and measures which mitigate against the risks attached to international finance. There may be occasional news stories about EU guidelines missing their target or being too prescriptive, but in the great majority of cases they act as a brake on businesses looking to take shortcuts or exploit loopholes.

As we move towards the European Elections in May the debate about EU membership is likely to move in one of two directions, either becoming a more and more negative discourse about immigration, or an increasingly technical debate about whether, in financial terms, Britain gains more than it loses through being part of Europe. If we are to set out a more positive argument about the EU we need to avoid colluding in the idea that all Directives from Brussels are bad, and instead remind voters that being part of Europe is a means of protecting our social fabric.

With the likes of Peter Cruddas leading the Eurosceptic charge – and a Tory government at some point in the future unchecked by the EU seeking to further undermine employees – it is vital that the Labour Party does not just pay lip service to the European Elections. We must be sure to see the wood for the trees when it comes to the EU, and to make the case strongly.

Thanks to the EU we have peace in Europe

Labour Party

Many of you will have heard that my father sadly died on 2 January at the age of 94. His passing has stirred an avalanche of emotions, as you would expect many personal and not appropriate for this blog, but others very pertinent to our times in a more general sense.

Old age succeeded where the Japanese during World War II failed in ending my father’s life. The young Captain Stanley Honeyball serving in the “forgotten Army” survived the war in the far-east, having previously been stationed in West Africa and India. He was only 20 when war broke out. At the same age I and other fortunate young people were having the time of our lives as students.

Growing up as a member of the “baby-boom” generation, the War was never far from my consciousness and that of my family and friends. Stories about the War were everywhere, though I’m not at all sure those born in Britain shortly afterwards really ever fully grasped the true pain and suffering Europe went through. Having fought in the First World War and returned, both my grand-fathers were then caught up in the Blitz while my mother did air raid duty. Those at home appeared to cope by invoking grim humour. I vividly remember a story of fire bombs in the garden being told with light-hearted merriment.

This unlooked for and unprovoked involvement of the population as a whole is, of course, what distinguishes modern warfare from what went before, up to an including the 1914-18 war, which ended just a short time before my father’s birth in 1919. Dad went to fight in very foreign places. For the first time ever, those at home were involved on an unprecedented scale.

The Second World War continues to impact on our destiny over 70 years after it started. The shape of Europe even after the fall of the Iron Curtain is that established after 1945. It hardly needs articulating that the EU itself was created out of the ashes of a Europe riven by the most technologically advanced and far-reaching war the world had ever seen.

It is a damning indictment on our judgment that the United Kingdom, perceiving itself as a “victor” has never really felt at home with the EU, the real lasting aspect of the post-war settlement. Even now our national identity remains fractured, a state of affairs analysed very well by Mary Riddell in today’s Daily Telegraph.

Ms Riddell makes no bones about the fact that “With dangers abroad and our economic destiny far from assured, it is imperative that Britain should re-establish its identity and global niche.” Her solution to this, which also happens to be mine, of course, is that our best hope lies with the European Union. The EU is not only the largest economy in the world, it also has the second biggest defence budget after the United States and now boasts the muscle to help secure the recent Iranian nuclear agreement.

An international organisation established by voluntary agreement, the EU is more than a powerful economic bloc. At its very core it believes in and promotes peace, human rights and democracy. The values of the European Union are often discussed in the European Parliament as a living blueprint for our lives not some high-sounding but remote form of words. As Ms Riddell rightly points out, the EU is “the only show in town”.

In other words, Europe is the solution to Britain’s identity crisis and the danger we as a nation face of being marooned in a sea of super powers – the United States, China, India and maybe Brazil – but not being fully part of the one union that can put us back on track, the European Union. The idea that the UK could even contmplate leaving the one place where we may find protection is nothing short of terrifying. 

My father and mother, their generation and their parents’ generation knew war. While nowhere near being a pacifist, Dad fervently hoped his children would never have to go through the horror and deprivation faced by him and his contemporaries. Despite the British being unable to break the habit of sending troops to foreign parts, since 1945 our country hasn’t had to cope with all-out conflict. I for one am truly glad of that, and may it remain the case for as long as humanity walks the planet. 

Women need safe and accessible contraception

Labour Party

Yesterday’s “Daily Telegraph” reported that the number of girls under 15 in England who have sought contraceptive implants has increased sixfold in just half a decade, according to government statistics. Nearly 5,000 teenagers below the age of consent were given the devices last year, compared with about 800 just five years ago.

The NHS Information Centre  showed that about 7,400 girls aged 15 or under had implants or injections last year, up from 2,900 in 2005/6. This included 2,500 who had injections last year, up from 2,100.

The increase follows a push by the government to encourage the use of such devices in order to cut teenage pregnancies.

Although parents have apparently complained that their daughters were being fitted with the implants without their knowledge, I for one am absolutely certain that having such a device is better than an unwanted pregnancy. Although it is true that the long-term effects of such implants are unclear, the girls may well not use the devices for very long. They will eventually start a family at an appropriate age or switch to an alternative method when older.

Access to contraception is vitally important and reproductive freedom lies at the heart of public health and equity across the world.

Here in the EU the European Commission has always and supported policy and co-ordination and exchange of good practice to combat health inequalities between member states.

However, access to contraception is not always easy or cheap in several EU countries, due in part to lack of state subsidy and poor information on availability. This has detrimental effects on the health and well-being of low-income women in particular. It also does nothing to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies in these countries.

Unfortunately the European Commission does not at present prioritise women’s reproductive health and access to contraception. The 88 health indicators developed by the Commission do not include availability of contraception or the unmet needs for such provision. What is more, the Commission’s Health for Growth Programme (2014 – 2020) contains no references to sexual and reproductive health.

To try and put this right, members of the European Parliament Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee are putting an oral question to the Commission – similar to Prime Minister’s Questions without the loudness and rudeness – on the issue.

 The Question will ask:

  •  What is the Commission doing to collect data on contraceptive use?
  • Is the Commission sharing best practice across Member States?
  • How is the Commission breaking down the barriers – high cost, lack of insurance cover, lack of helpful information – limiting access to contraception?
  • In what ways will the Commission follow up on the outcomes detailed in its report on health equality initiatives?

It is absolutely right that we push the European Commission on this important subject. Safe and reliable contraception has transformed women’s lives allowing pregnancies to be planned and the size of any given family size to be decided by the parents concerned. Those of us who live in countries where contraception is free and easily accessible have a real duty to do all we can to bring the same benefits to women who live in less fortunate circumstances.

Interestingly United States President Barack Obama recently announced modified plans to require that all women to have access to contraception. The president was uniquivocal when he said the policy “saves lives and saves money”. The White House even hanged the scheme to allow health insurers to provide cover directly if employers object in order to allow access to contraception where employers may not wish to support it on religious grounds.


Sex-selective termination is not the inevitable consequence of access to abortion

Labour Party

The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) has claimed that terminating pregnancies on the basis of the sex of the foetus is the “inevitable consequence” of easy access to abortion.

SPUC felt motivated to put forward this appalling and inaccurate view following revelations in the Daily Telegraph that doctors agreed to carry out abortions on the grounds of the sex of the foetus. The Daily Telegraph sent undercover reporters to nine abortion clinics in Britain and found three cases where women wanted a termination because of the gender of the foetus.

Abortion carried out because the potential baby is the wrong sex is completely and utterly reprehensible. It is also illegal, according to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. In England, Scotland and Wales that there are criteria which have to be met to have a termination before 24 weeks, including:

  • Continuing with the pregnancy would be a greater risk to the woman’s life, physical or mental health than ending the pregnancy
  • Continuing would be more of risk to the physical or mental health of any of the women’s existing children
  • There is a real risk the unborn child would have a serious physical or mental disability

In addition, two doctors have to agree to the abortion, or one in the case of an emergency, and conditions are stricter for abortions carried out after 24 weeks. In Northern Ireland abortion is usually illegal unless the mother’s life is at risk.

So despite what SPUC may have you believe, it is actually quite difficult under the law to get an abortion. We do not have “easy access” to abortion. There are strict requirements for the procedure to be undertaken in a legal fashion.

In response to the Daily Telegraph investigation SPUC makes an extraordinary claim, namely, “This investigation confirms the reality of eugenics in modern British medicine.” Making accusations such as this is both stupid and deeply offensive.   

The Daily Telegraph does not tell us which sex was preferred and which sex was consigned to the dustbin of termination. My strong hunch is that it is girls who are not wanted. Female foetuses are terminated in India because of their gender, and the same is probably true in other parts of the world. We need more information on whether it is girls who are terminated in larger numbers than boys so that the problem of parents not wanting females can be properly addressed.  

The Department of Health has launched an inquiry into the claims the abortions are carried out on the basis of sex and Andrew Lansley has roundly condemned the practice. Let’s hope he has more success with this inquiry, and subsequently ensuring the current abortion laws are obeyed, than he is currently having with the disastrous NHS Bill.

David Cameron’s EU problems, not the Milibands, are the real story

Labour Party

Judging by the amount of media coverage generated by David Miliband’s New Statesman article of the “is he going to challenge his brother for the Labour leadership” variety, you would be forgiven for thinking this the at the very top of the political pops. Yet it manifestly is not.

David Miliband has consistently claimed he is not now going to do anything about trying to become Leader of the Labour Party. In addition, in case the mainstream media hadn’t noticed, the Leader of the Labour Party is only the Leader of the Opposition, not the Prime Minister. He is not the head of our government and, as such, has little real power. 

Power, of course, lies with David Cameron, who has troubles of his own which are real rather than in the media’s imagination. As I blogged yesterday and many other times, David Cameron is facing huge problems with his Eurosceptic backbenchers.

Yesterday’s Telegraph letter signed by 102 Tory Eurosceptics including all the officers of the influential 1922 Committee – Graham Brady, Brian Binley, Mark Prichard and Charles Walker – and two former Cabinet Ministers – Peter Lilley and John Redwood – is just one aspect of Cameron’s difficulty. The signatories make up a third of Tory MPs, 102 out of a total of 307, a massive proportion.

Moreover, the Eurosceptics are not going to go away. This is a determined band, some of whom such as the veteran Bill Cash have been around for a very long time peddling their simple message that all things EU are bad and Britain would be better off outside. At the very least they want powers currently located in the EU to be repatriated to Britain.

Then there are the Liberal-Democrats who are the polar opposite. It goes without saying that Cameron needs to keep the 57 Lib-Dem MPs on side to ensure his government survives.

So we already have a situation which is less than desirable. Yet it does not end there. I think that having now had direct experience of the European Union rather than simply listening to others talk about it, David Cameron is beginning to realise that repatriation of powers is not the piece of cake he once believed.

Poor David Cameron and the Conservative Party whips have to contend with one third of their MPs who will pursue their anti-EU crusade to the bitter end while at the same time needing to maintain support from a substantial number of MPs in the other coalition party whose distinctive policy has always been to favour Europe.  

To make matters even worse, David Cameron’s flagship policy on the EU – repatriation of power – is a non-runner. The policy requires agreement from the 26 other EU member states, which I have never believed will be forthcoming.

It’s all a terrible mess for Mr Cameron and it is real. It should be reported in more depth and detail. David Cameron’s EU problems are the headline news story, not whether or not there will be a Labour leadership challenge.

The Tory Right denies Choice to Pregnant Women

Labour Party

I read in the Telegraph earlier this week that private clinics which carry out abortions will be allowed to advertise on television and radio for the first time. I was not surprised to learn that this news has been met with outrage from anti-abortion groups such as Life and the more dogmatic elements of the Conservative Party. As usual, their arguments range from the factually incorrect to those of gymnastic leaps of logic.

Joanna Hill from Life described the proposals as utterly unacceptable because it meant that abortions would be advertised as if they were cars or soap powder. The problem is that no abortion provider advertises their product in such a way. The Marie Stopes advert that caused so much outrage last year didn’t even mention the word abortion or suggest it. It simply said “If you are late, you could be pregnant and Marie Stopes could help you”. It accurately represented that Marie Stopes aims to provide a range of options to women who are undergoing an unexpected pregnancy.

Life also argued that the new rules would allow “money-grabbing abortion providers” to abuse vulnerable women. Firstly, the overwhelming majority of abortion providers such as Marie Stopes and BPAS are charities, run not-for-profit. Secondly, abortion is available on the NHS and that is where the most vulnerable women, such as teenagers who are unlikely to be able to pay for an abortion, are likely to go. Thirdly, the reason many women chose to pay for a private abortion rather than use the NHS is because they believe that such organisations provide a higher quality of care and counselling.

This issue highlights the hypocrisy of the right-wing Tories’ current stance on abortion. Nadine Dorries has demanded that women be forced to undergo compulsory counselling by an organisation that doesn’t itself provide abortion services before being allowed to undergo the procedure. This will actually delay treatment for women but she has justified these proposals on the grounds that women should have the choice to abort but need to have “as much information as possible”. Why then has she denounced these new proposals which are fundamentally about providing women with information about their options? The only possible reason is that Dorries and groups such as Life only want pregnant women to have certain kinds of information, the information and advice that fit in with their own agenda.

Anti-abortion campaigners are blinded by their dogma and prejudice into thinking that those involved in abortions are immoral people who either have no respect for human life or even get pleasure from the taking of it. This is totally and utterly wrong. Those who work for organisations like Marie Stopes are, I believe, motivated primarily by compassion, just like those who work in all other forms of healthcare.

Such organisations are also not simply about providing abortions. Marie Stopes, BPAS and similar bodies  provide a range of fertility, sexual health and counselling services. The mission statement of Marie Stopes sums up their role perfectly; “Children by choice, not by chance” and that includes helping women to have children as well as not to have them. Right wing Tories and the dogmatic elements of our society are trying to prevent women from being able to make that choice for themselves.

Boris Johnson talks Nonsense on Greece

Labour Party

Boris Johnson is, as ever, talking utter nonsense out of a part of his anatomy I would rather not mention. He writes in today’s Daily Telegraph: “For years, European governments have been saying that it would be insane and inconceivable for a country to leave the euro. But this second option is all but inevitable and the sooner it happens the better.” Boris, just hang on a minute and think about this one.

For starters, it’s profoundly shocking that people in Greece feel the need to protest so vehemently in such large numbers. Deflationary austerity measures, still seen by the world’s financial authorities as the way to deal with economic crises, always impact on those who had nothing at all to do with creating the crisis in question. It’s Greece’s men and women in the street, now in protesting in large numbers in Syntagma Square, who are really suffering.

The citizens of Greece are going through this because of a massive failure of the international banking and financial system. This was not originally a crisis the euro but a crisis caused by transnational banks with a global reach. As Richard Woods and Philip Pangalos put it in the Sunday Times yesterday: “Three years ago after Lehman’s fall, governments bailed out other banks: now nations are teetering on the brink.” “Greece borrowed far too much, particularly from French and German banks…”

True, the low interest rates in the eurozone facilitated this borrowing. However, non-eurozone countries such as the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and, of course, Japan, also had, and still have, low interest rates. The current severe difficulties facing the eurozone are not, as Boris Johnson and his cronies would have us believe, purely a result of inherent problems with the single currency, but more to do with the global financial and economic situation.

True, as a member of the eurozone Greece cannot devalue its currency to make its exports more competitive. However, this strategy only works when a country has something worth exporting. Greece, as we all know, has few manufactured goods and its main exports – olive oil, marble and aluminium – are not exactly going to make the big time. Moreover, no-one would dispute that Greece’s economy is in a very bad way; it contracted by 4.5% last year and the official unemployment rate of 16% is probably a gross underestimate. However, most of this is not down to the euro and would not be solved if Greece were to leave the single currency.

Boris, a weak Greece with massive economic problems would impact on all of us whether not Greece was in the euro. The United States has sold credit default swaps, a form of insurance, on the Greek debts held by European banks which European banks facing losses may try to claim back from the American banks. This is surely a global issue if ever there was one.    

Having underwritten any subsequent bail-outs for Greece, it is hard to argue anything other than that Britain was at the heart of the one we saw recently. More significantly, the UK has contributed £19.7 billion to the International Monetary Fund, which could well be used for another such bail-out. Given that half of Britain’s exports go to the EU, we obviously nave a huge interest in keeping the pan-European economy in reasonable working order.

The thing is, Boris, all those people in Greece who are unemployed, fear being unemployed or simply cannot make ends meet, do matter to us for our own reasons. They would buy our goods if they could afford it. They are therefore important for our own well-being. When they are poor, we become poorer, whether or not Greece, or indeed the UK, is or is not in the European single currency.

Nick Clegg really is a Tory

Labour Party

So it’s absolutely true that Nick Clegg is extremely important on the right in British politics.  The Daily Telegraph puts him at number three in their ranking of influential right wingers.  Only George Osborne and David Cameron are higher.

This just goes to confirm what many of us already knew – that Clegg really is a Tory.

Here is the extract from the Daily Telegraph feature.

Top 100 most influential Right-wingers

Our (Daily Telegraph) list looking at who wields power on the Right of British politics.

Compiled by Iain Dale and Brian Brivati

3. (NEW) NICK CLEGG Deputy Prime Minister

Some may question the inclusion of the leader of the Liberal Democrats in a list of influential people on the right. But Clegg has proved in the last six months that he really does belong on this list. His recognition of the need to cut the deficit and do it quickly is one reason. His clear influence over David Cameron is the other. He is an ‘Orange Book’ liberal who recognises the importance of the free market and the small state. Time will tell if he is able to drag the statist elements of his party with him.

O’Leary just doesn’t get it

Labour Party


Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary claimed in yesterday’s Telegraph that he had posted one of his ‘calendars’ to me. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the history of this tale, last year I criticised the mindless objectification of women in this article for the Guardian’s Comment is Free after he published a calendar for charity which contained his ‘sexiest airline stewards’ in which they ‘bared all’. He said I was ‘anti fun’ and went onto stoke the fire even further by offering ‘beds and blow-jobs’ on economy flights in (as I said then) a nauseating bid for further coverage.

Do I care that O’Leary labels me as anti-fun? Not a bit, because there is a serious point to be made here.

My concern is the message that charities, which align themselves with this calendar, are sending to their supporters. Charities are based on values and aim to improve people’s lives, but by accepting donations of this kind and inadvertently supporting the cause, they risk jeopardising their reputation.

One charity which is set to be a beneficiary of the proceeds is KIDS which aims to develop both the thinking and services that create an inclusive world for disabled children, young people and their families. And yet there is nothing particularly inclusive or progressive about the Ryanair calendar, quite the reverse in fact.

The charity is inadvertently aligning itself with a linear one dimensional idea of beauty that objectifies women in the most nauseating way.

The ethics of charitable funding is a difficult, delicate and complex issue when it comes to instances like this. And in this case charities like KIDS must measure the damage it could do to its reputation against the monetary value of the donation it will receive.

It is not implausible to think they may find themselves in a situation where they accept the money from an organisation or a cause that they may seek to criticise in the future and that goes against its basic principles.


Labour Party

I recently blogged that the European elections are not about Gordon Brown’s leadership.

Neither are they about MPs, expenses.  Although I have no wish to comment on the revelations brought to us by that great bastion of progressive jouralism, the Daily Telegraph”,  in relation to individual MP colleagues, there are, I believe, some general points which need to be made.

Firstly, wherever this saga of MPs and their allowances goes, it plays no part in the European elections.  On 4th June the country will be voting for representatives in the European Parliament.  It is neither a vote about who runs Britain or a vote about the behaviour of British MPs.  It is, purely and simply, an election to chose representatives in the European Parliament.  The conduct of some Members of the British Parliament and the system used to pay their allowances has no bearing whatsoever on the 4th June poll.

Despite the fact that the Prime Minister has featured in the “”Telegraph’s” feeding frenzy, it would be quite wrong to  judge me and my fellow Euro candidates by the fall out from Gordon Brown’s cleaning bills.  Likewise, Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett, Davin Miliband, Geoff Hoon, Hazel Blears and even our own Europe Minister Caroline Flint, are not at all relevant to the European elections, at least as  far as their House of Commons expenses are concerned.

My next point concerns the  Daily Telegraph” itself, now in its second day of its “let’s get them” orgy.  This august newspaper obviously thinks MPs are fair game.  However, it should be remembered that the “Telegraph” came by the expenses information in a less than honest manner.   The “Telegraph”, we are led to believe, paid £300,000 for computer discs containing MPs’ scanned receipts and full expenses records over five years, rumoured to have come from an individual in company employed  by the Commons to process the receipts took the chance to make an illicit copy.

It’s bad enough that the “Telegraph” apparently paid for stolen goods.  It’s made even worse because all these records were due for publication in July.  The “Telegraph” acted to gain an advantage over its rivals without regard to morality or integrity.  And this is the newspaper which is now labelling MPs corrupt.

Finally, I want to cover the issue of releasing MPs private addresses.  Had the records we now have courtesy of the “Daily Telegraph” been officially released in July as planned, MPs’ addresses would have been removed.  There is a real issue here about MPs’ personal safety, surely something they are all entitled to, whatever you may think of them.  When I was first became an MEP I was targeted by the fascist organisation Kombat 18, which has a record of violent behaviour.  Whilst MPs addresses can’t be completely confidential, there is a strong argument for keeping them as private as possible.  Those in the public eye deserve to feel safe in their own homes.          

The European Parliament has now finished for the Euro elections.  I am therefore in London out and about on the campaign trail.  From now until 4 June, this blog will bring you news, views, photos and much more from the Euro campaign.  Please use your vote and cast it wisely.