Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Millions of pounds may have to be paid back to some of the UK’s biggest supermarket employees, the vast majority of which are women, following an equal pay claim against one of the country’s leading retailers.

The claims echo the £1bn  landmark ruling by the Supreme court two years ago, which found in favour of thousands of female workers who claimed Birmingham City Council had paid them less than other workers, mainly men, for doing equivalent work.

If the case against the supermarket is proved then it could mean other supermarkets and retailers face similar claims.

While reading the report it was a surprise to learn that well over 100,000 equal pay cases had been brought between 2009 and 2012.

Cases like these will continue for many years to come, I dare say, because women are frequently still paid differently for equivalent work to their male colleagues.

Equal pay cases are, unsurprisingly, complex and therefore take many years to complete, as it did for two home care workers featured in Saturday’s Guardian. Joan Clulow and Pamela Saunders’ case wasn’t settled for six years following a tough battle after they found they had been underpaid in their roles.

Meanwhile there is just six weeks to go until the European Elections, and the Brussels based newspaper European Voice, asks: “The European Parliament, 2014-2019- what’s at Stake?” Its special report explores what kind of European Parliament will emerge following the election and examines different scenarios.

In another ‘special report’ the same paper  compares access to healthcare across member states and reveals that equality to access for all is far from reality. Exclusion or insufficient access is largely determined by socio economic factors, it says.

However, the report includes a survey which finds gender to be a significant factor in determining access and shows that women suffer more significantly than men in this regard; and this was the case across all the EU countries surveyed.

Although member states largely take responsibility for their own healthcare provision the Commission has a level of scrutiny over national healthcare decisions. For example, the Commission has started to examine national healthcare spending and an important task is to ensure that healthcare funding is not only spent wisely but that it is accessible.

Of course better provision for vulnerable groups must be addressed, such as those affected by socio economic factors- but also the significant gender inequality must also be examined.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

The French President, Francois Hollande gave a highly anticipated speech last week to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He argued that the European Union should be more vocal in world conflicts and defended France’s decision to intervene in the Mali conflict calling it “a European fight for democracy.”

Without referring to the UK specifically he made it clear that he totally rejected any idea that any national Government could cherry pick EU policies. He said: “National governments should stop calling into question EU competencies at every step.”

He warned against it being a body which looks out only for self-interest and said the EU was in danger of becoming “a sum of nations where each looks for what is good for itself and only itself.”

He did agree however, that it was necessary to look at the European Unions ‘architecture.’ You can read a full report from European Voice here.

A deal was reached over the European Union’s budget last week and responding to the deal Douglas Alexander MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, said: “We welcome news that a deal has been reached. Failing to agree one could have seen next year’s budget go up automatically.

“Labour voted in November to give David Cameron a clear mandate to negotiate for a real terms cut, and so we welcome the reports indicating the policy we advocated has been agreed.

“It seemed at times that David Cameron was ready to throw in the towel and aim for a freeze, but today’s deal proves that a cut was worth voting for in Westminster and worth negotiating for in Brussels”.

You can read his quote in full here.

The cost of MEP Questions to the European Commission and Council should be quantified

Labour Party

It is inevitable that the most respected parts of revered institutions occasionally get their knickers in a twist.

This has most certainly been the case here in the European Parliament concerning MEPs’ questions to the European Commission and Council.

For some years there have been sessions at the plenary sitting of the European Parliament where MEPs ask oral questions to the President of the European Commission. While nothing like Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, it is a useful way of raising issues and can elicit helpful information. We may also ask written questions to both the Commission and the European Council.

Replying to these questions obviously costs money. European Voice, the respected European newspaper, has taken the cost issue up with a vengeance. The paper is so exercised by the matter of cost that it gave it front page billing last week.

A spokesperson from the European Parliament wrote a letter to the Editor in response, which was less than positive. Incredibly, this set European Voice off again. This week there was an entire leader devoted to this one subject entitled “To ask the price of MEPs’ questions cannot be taboo”.

Indeed it cannot, but European Voice and those who heed their call must understand that these questions are an essential tool in, to use the European Parliament’s own phrase “democratic oversight”. I have made use of questions to both the Commission and the Council on many occasions as have all my Labour colleagues. It enables us to find out more about what is going on and aid our decision making.

It is, however, worrying that, as European Voice point out in their lengthy leader, the actual costs of asking a question are not calculated. We therefore have no way of knowing the price-tag attached to our demands. Compare this to the UK where the average cost of a question is 185 euros. I would certainly support better accounting while at the same time defending MEPs’ right to ask as many questions as they need.

The number of questions asked to the European Commission and Council has, of course, gone up with the enlargement of the European Union. During the 2004 – 2009 term the number asked was 6,000. It is twice that figure so far for the present mandate. This was inevitable as the 12 new member states found their feet. A European Parliament with 27 countries will inevitably ask more questions than one comprising fifteen.

Although I think European Voice has gone completely over the top on this one, they do have a very valid point. I would certainly support the costs of asking questions being calculated and made public. It is quite simply a matter of public accountability. The people who vote for us should know what we do and how much it costs.

The European Parliament and the EU as a whole have for too long operated in an opaque way where it is very difficult to find financial information. I believe we are getting better, as demonstrated by the fact that all Labour MEPs have their office accounts audited and put the audit certificates on their websites. Labour MEPs also publish details of their travel costs.

 The European Parliament as a whole should sharpen up its act. We are a democratic, elected body and the public has a right to know.

Stephen Hughes for President of the Socialist and Democrat Group

Labour Party

I’m very pleased that my colleague, North-East MEP Stephen Hughes, is running for the leadership (President as they call it here) of the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament. European Voice ran this article last week indicating that the contest has now begun, assuming, of course, that the vacancy for Group President is actually created due to Martin Schulz taking over as President of the European Parliament.

Stephen will make an excellent Group leader.  He has huge experience of economic and social issues, having been Chair and Socialist Group Co-ordinator of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee. Stephen deserves a medal for his long service as an MEP, 26 years in all. With this has come considerable knowledge of the Socialist and Democrat Group, the European Parliament and how to get things done in this place.

The great thing about Stephen is that he listens and part of his election platform is to listen to Group members and develop a common purpose. I am sure I”m not alone in welcoming this. Those in leadership positions sometimes have a tendency to carry on without taking the views of their supporters into account. I’m confident Stephen will not do that and will represent Socialist and Democrat MEPs in a fair and reasonable way. 

We will vote on the President position at the mid-point of the current parliamentary mandate, sometime at the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012. This obviously means a long campaign and I will try and keep you updated as much as possible.

European Voice is wrong about the Con-Dem coalition

Labour Party

“The decision by the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal-Democrat parties to form a coalition government freed Cameron from his Eurosceptic right-wing and put the UK in step with the norm in Europe.”

You may wonder where to find this completely accurate if rather bald statement.

And it’s probably not where you think.

Every year at about this time the European Union/European Parliament indulges in a prize giving fest – awards for the best MEP on each committee, for films and journalism and several for young people.

Not to be outdone, European Voice, Europe’s very own and only newspaper, makes its own contribution to the merry go round with awards for National Politician, European Commissioner, MEP, EU Official and intriguingly Inspiration.

One the five entries put forward for the national politician category this year is David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the UK’s prime minister and deputy prime minister because, yes, you’ve guessed it, they formed a coalition government to put the brakes on the eurosceptics and “put the UK in step with the norm in Europe.”.

I am not at all sure that a supreme act of political expediency, such as forming a coalition to neutralise a strand of opinion is worthy of a what claims to be a serious political award.

I’m also not sure that Cameron and Clegg formed a coalition to bring the UK in step with the norm in Europe.

While the happy outcome, for David Cameron at least, is that being in coalition with the Lib-Dems has made his eurosceptic wing shut up for the time being, I really don’t think it was uppermost in his mind when going into government with them.  The Tories joined up with Clegg’s outfit because they wanted power and hadn’t received enough votes at the general election to form a majority government.

So come off it, European Voice. Please don’t even try to make out the Cameron and Clegg acted out of principle.  It simply won’t wash.