The Tories should look to their own record in the House of Commons before ruling out quotas for women on company boards

Labour Party

Maria Miller in the Sunday Times a couple of days ago derided what she called Labour’s “obsession” with the number of women on company boards.

At least we now know where the Tories stand on the issue. As the Sunday Times points out, Miller’s comments signal a shift in the Tory-led Coalition’s approach to women in the workplace.

In February 2011 Government Ministers welcomed a landmark report by Lord Davies of Abersoch which set a target of 25 per cent female representation on the boards of the top 100 listed companies by 2015. Earlier this year David Cameron said he would not rule out going further and using quotas as a means of getting women into top executive jobs, according to the Sunday Times.

Miller, it appears, is now moving away from Cameron’s position. She apparently sees helping women juggle work and family life and providing greater access to childcare as the answer to getting more women on to company boards.  While both of these are extremely laudable aims, they are only steps on the road to equality for women in top posts.

A look at the Tories’ record in electing women to the House of Commons is instructive. Having introduced all women shortlists (the parliamentary equivalent of quotas) for Commons constituencies before the 1997 general election, 31 per cent of current Labour MPs are women. The Tories, who have no mandatory system but rely on voluntary measures, have only 16 per cent.

Later this week European Commissioner Viviane Reding will make a further announcement about her plans for more women on the boards of leading companies. Miller will, of course, continue to oppose quotas. She also claims that Viviane Reding’s proposal has already been rejected once, which is quite simply not true. In actual fact, as opposed to Tory EU make-believe, when Reding introduced her ideas at a recent meeting of the European Commission, no decision was taken in order to allow time for further discussions – hardly a rejection.

In the course of the Sunday Times article Miller inevitably trotted out the old cliché that women want and expect to reach the top on merit not because of political correctness. I get extremely angry with this attitude, implying as it does that women do not have the ability to fill and do well in top jobs and that women appointed as part of a quota system will merely be tokens.

Women are just as able and intelligent as men. They do, however, have children and sadly discrimination still exists. Quotas are a means of getting women to where they should be. Once that is achieved, quotas will no longer be needed.

Britain’s EU bill explained without the anti-European hype

Labour Party

Mark Reckless, Bill Cash, Douglas Carswell and the other feral Tory Eurosceptics are quite simply wrong on the EU budget. At best they have either not bothered to do their homework or quite simply and naively believe the plethora of misinformation that surrounds us in Britain. At worst they are so utterly opposed to the European Union that they will always twist the truth to suit their own purposes.

I was particularly disappointed by an article in the Sunday Times full of prejudice taking little account of the facts. Britain actually received a £5 billion rebate back from the EU last year and will continue to get this sum adjusted for inflation for every subsequent year. The reason the UK is one of the highest contributors to the EU is that we are one of the largest member states.

What is more, the EU budget is nothing like as huge as current folk lore would have us believe. In 2011 it was € 140 billion. The average EU citizen pays only about 50p on average per day to finance the annual budget which represents only around 1% of EU-27 Gross Domestic Product

The budget is, in addition, always balanced, meaning nothing is spent on debt. Moreover 94% of what is paid into the EU budget is spent in Member States on EU funded programmes, many of which are about economic development creating jobs and generating wealth. Those who complain about EU payments to Kosovo being lost to corruption as outlined in the Sunday Times would do well to understand that this is proportionately a very small sum of money. Of course, corruption is always wrong, but the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decision to support Kosovo was made in good faith with the aim of rebuilding the war torn country.

I get very annoyed when we are told that the EU budget and almost everything else is imposed by Brussels. The budget and, indeed all European legislation, is decided by elected politicians, in the European Parliament and in the Council of Ministers comprising member states’ elected governments. The EU never “imposes” anything on member states; it is all agreed by elected governments and elected MEPs.

The Sunday Times article sadly relied on briefing from the Open Europe think tank. They are by their own admission anti-EU as this quote from their website demonstrates: “While we [Open Europe] are committed to European co-operation, we believe that the EU has reached a critical moment in its development. Globalisation, enlargement, successive No votes in EU referenda and the Eurozone crisis have discredited the notion of ‘ever closer union’ espoused by successive generations of political and bureaucratic elites.”

While this is an opinion, it is not the only one and the Sunday Times would have done well to take on board other arguments. They tell us that 53% of those in David Cameron’s Witney constituency favour withdrawal from the EU. That means that 47% do not, enough I would have thought for their views to be taken on board.

Work-Life balance is important for our future

Labour Party

A year ago Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning in the United States State Department under Hillary Clinton, resigned her job. It was indeed a job to die for, but Slaughter realised that she wanted to spend more time with her husband and children, especially her 14-year-old son who was going through a troubled time.

 The Sunday Times reported how Ms Slaughter talked to a group of women at Oxford University, saying: “I just got up there and started talking about how incredibly hard it had been and how it had changed my assumptions about my entire career trajectory.”

 Slaughter believes we have reached a tipping point. It is just too hard for women to have it all. As men’s as well as women’s lives are changing, Slaughter and other women at the top of their professions want us as a society to address the way we still see paid work, and, of course, the corollary of work in the home and bringing up children.

 One partner in a leading law firm quoted in the Sunday Times made a very telling point: “We’ve got to change what it means to be a partner because otherwise we are not going to be able to attract the best young men, as well as the women.”

 Whet this albeit anecdotal evidence shows is that the younger generation of men are looking for more balance between their work and family life. I find this encouraging. If we are to have an equal society for men and women with both able to make equal choices the question of work, children, domestic and caring responsibilities, men need to be involved. Women and men should be seen as equal.

 Anne-Marie Slaughter’s immediate goal is to close the leadership gap. She is absolutely right when she says that it will only be possible to forge a society which really works for equality when women wield power both corporately and professionally in sufficient numbers.

Slaughter sees an overhaul of school timetables which are based on the assumption that women do not go out to work as essential. She also thinks we need a change in the male-driven work culture of presenteeism, including more home-working and flexi-time, to allow more balance between work and home life.

Interestingly, Slaughter calls for women in employment to talk about juggling childcare and domestic responsibilities with their work. She is certain that if men knew what women have to deal with they would be more ready to make changes.

Anne-Marie Slaughter has, I believe, done us all a service by being so open about her own experience. Work-life balance is one of the biggest challenges our society faces. Women are now expected to work and very often need to for economic reason. For most women staying at home is not an option. We need to address this huge question in a far more rational and thought through way than is currently the case.

Britian would be a political pygmy without the EU

Labour Party

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.

Cameron admits the UK is dependent on exports to the Eurozone

Labour Party

Wittingly or not, Prime Minister David Cameron admitted Britain is dependent on markets in the Eurozone for our exports on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday. In other words, the UK is inherently part of the economic system across the European Union, in spite of strenuous efforts to remain outside not only the single currency but the more recent fiscal pact designed to mitigate the current economic problems.

This is absolutely not a good place to be. To be outside deliberations on the European economy, yet affected in a fundamental way, but with no means of influencing what happens to the majority of your exports is utter folly. In the same way, not being party to economic decisions which will have a profound impact on the British people is somewhere a responsible government should never find itself.

But Cameron, Clegg et al are not responsible. Cameron’s hatred of Europe is not good for Britain. Moreover, Cameron has alienated German Chancellor Angela Merkel who should be a key ally. His recent suggestion that the governance of the Euro is not yet resolved has, apparently, angered her. Taken in conjunction with Merkel’s fury when the British Conservatives left the centre-right European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, this does not bode well. Diplomacy and influence are all about gaining friends, especially significant ones, not annoying them.

The Cameron/Merkel stand-off could become even more unfortunate given the likely victory of Socialist Francois Hollande in the French presidential election on Sunday. Hollande has made it clear he will not go along with the austerity demanded by Angela Merkel and that he will not ratify any austerity deal put forward by Nicolas Sarkozy.

So where does this leave the UK?  Cameron appears to side with Merkel but she will not have much to do with him. France, potentially the EU’s second most important member state after Germany, is likely to elect a President calling for growth to lift Europe out of recession. Cameron, meanwhile, is fretting on the side-lines with nowhere to go.

A victory for Francois Hollande would, of course, be of huge benefit to Europe. We would at last have someone in a position of huge authority against full-on austerity making the case for growth. This would also give a massive boost to the Labour Party. Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have been arguing a similar case since the beginning of the crisis; they now will perhaps be heard rather better that they have so far. As Ed Balls said in the Guardian yesterday, “It is no good the prime minister telling us that the Eurozone crisis is going to last a long time. Cameron and George Osborne must accept their share of the blame”.

As, indeed they must. A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times showed that 32% blame the return to recession on UK government policies, 29% on the Eurozone and global factors and only 17% on the last Labour government. Cameron and Osborne should take note of what happens in France on Sunday. The result may tell us a lot about the future direction of Europe and the UK.

Women still have a long way to go: Rip Off Britain and abortion at risk in Spain

Labour Party

The audience for Rip Off Britain regularly tops 5 million while Match of the Day gets 4.5 million. This does not surprise me. Football may be the national game and, given the domination of our national news by the Capello-Redknapp furore, you may be forgiven for forgetting that more people are interested in getting a fair deal than 22 men kicking a ball around.

It is therefore grossly unjust that the three female presenters of  Rip Off Britain – Gloria Hunniford, Angela Rippon and Julia Somerville – only receive £1,000 each per episode, amounting to £20,000 a year, compared to Match of the Day presenters Alan Hansen, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer who are paid astronomical amounts for their efforts on the programme. According to yesterday’s Sunday Times Hansen currently gets £1.5 million a year (to be cut to £1 million next season), Lineker, the show’s anchor-man receives about £2 million a year and poor old Alan Shearer a mere £400,000 a year or £10,000 per show. The lowest paid of this particular football trio receives ten times more than each of the three Rip Off Britain presenters.

Methinks I smell an insidious rat which is all to do with age and gender. Hunniford, Rippon and Somerville are all women of a certain age – 71, 67 and 64 respectively. The three of them feel strongly that they receive so very much less than equivalent male presenters simply because they are women who are no longer in the first flush of youth. Their pitiful remuneration is obviously not based on viewing figures as their programme consistently beats Match of the Day.

The Rip Off Britain case is another example in the saga of the way the BBC treats its older women presenters, Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly has already won an age discrimination case against the Corporation. Perhaps the outspoken anger of Hunniford, Rippon and Somerville will ensure than when the show returns next season not only these three excellent presenters but all other women at the BBC will get a fair deal.

Meanwhile, there is very bad news for women in Spain. The country’s new conservative rulers want to overturn the changes the previous socialist government made to the law relating to abortion. Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, one of the rising stars of the ruling party, has announced that he hopes to bring back a law from 1985 that allowed abortions only if the women’s mental or physical health was in danger or if she had been raped. The current law allows abortions on the national health service without the patient having to provide any justification if she is no more than 14 weeks pregnant. Moreover, 16-year olds can have abortions without their parents’ permission.

Abortion campaigners in Spain are appalled, stating that going back to the old restrictive law will lead to an increase in back-street abortions and a consequent rise in termination-related deaths. Dr Santiago Barambio who risked imprisonment for carrying out abortions under Franco told the Sunday Times, “They [the conservative government] want to take us back to the Franco days. They’re going to put moral concepts into laws so that we can all go to heaven.”    

Women across Europe obviously still face discrimination and have to overcome obstacles throughout their lives. These two examples at either end of the spectrum – older women television presenters receiving far less money than their male counterparts and abortion rights being threatened in Spain –  aptly demonstrate just how far we have yet to go.   


Cameron loses comprehensively to Merkel

Labour Party

Mrs Merkel has, it would seem, well and truly smashed the dream so carefully cherished by the Conservative part of the Con-Dem coalition that their beleaguered government would gain a resounding victory over the EU.

Until Cameron’s ill-fated meeting with Chancellor Merkel, there appeared to be many who believed the Tory propaganda. The British people were on the verge of thinking powers could be repatriated back from Brussels to London. All it needed was a treaty change requiring unanimity. Britain would then threaten to veto whatever was proposed and miraculously the other 26 member states, and most significantly Germany, would agree to the UK’s demands.

David Cameron, naïve and ignorant of the EU, obviously expected the Anglo-German talks last week to lead to Germany accepting the British government’s position. Instead Angela Merkel has sent him away with a flea in his ear. The German Chancellor has, in fact, rejected Cameron’s plans to repatriate powers over social and employment policy.

The “Sunday Times” yesterday reported that Merkel had said Britain would only be allowed a special protocol so that it and other non-Eurozone countries would be exempt from any fresh changes. Should Britain refuse this offer and stick to its repatriation demands, the Eurozone would set up a separate treaty leading to the creation of a two-tier Europe, essentially the major Euro players and the rest. The most significant member of the rest would obviously be the UK.

Cameron and the Tories in the Cabinet really don’t want this version of German real politik. It would mean that the Eurozone – Germany, France et al – would make decisions on financial services without the UK being involved. Not only would this be extremely detrimental for the British economy, it would also be very bad news for Cameron and all those Conservatives in the City.     

So where now for the Tory pledge to take powers back from Brussels? Unfortunately the days when Mrs Thatcher could wave her handbag and win concessions are well and truly over. We are all in it together and the only sensible view is to be in there and work to make the EU as good as it can be, as democratic as possible with public involvement at all levels of decision making.

David Cameron has now has to face up to the Euro demon in his own party. Arch-Tory Tim Montgomerie put it well on the Andrew Marr show yesterday morning. Cameron’s choice is between his pro-EU Lib-Dem coalition partners or the Eurosceptic majority in the Tory Party.

So will it be Government or will it be Party? It’s been a long time since a Prime Minister has faced such an impossible choice, a choice largely of his own making.

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.

The Sunday Times Rich List shows Cameron’s Big Society is an Empty Vessel

Labour Party

The “Sunday Times Rich List” is one of those annual publications it’s impossible to ignore, despite one’s better instincts. My profound inclination is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it and let the super and often filthy rich read about themselves without long-time lefties getting in on the act.

However, this year there are important things to say about the very rich, the most important being their utter selfishness. My understanding has always been that the Tory-led coalition and David Cameron in particular wanted the rich to give to charity in order to make the “big society” work. Fat chance that the fat cats will cough up. According to the “Rich List”, which is compiled in conjunction with the Charities Aid Foundation, charitable spending and donations to trusts are down by £818 million this year. But it’s not all bad in that the number of multimillionaires giving more that £1m to good causes has risen from last year’s 118 to 129 this time.

Yet the fact that 11 more very rich people – a minuscule increase if ever there was one – gave over £1m to those less fortunate than themselves is quite simply not enough to get even the remotest concept of the “big society” off the ground. David Cameron is  hoping pigs may fly, but it’s becoming ever clearer that the very rich kind have no intention of so doing.

Charitable giving has gone down, so there will be less provision for those in need. At the same time the public sector is being cut, again hitting the poor and disadvantaged. While I, a former charity Chief Executive, deeply regret the decline in donations, it’s the cuts in public services which will really bite. Charities can, at best, only plug the gaps and maybe come up with some good ideas. It’s local authorities, the health service and other public bodies who provide the universal service on which the vast majority of us rely one way or another.

So, woe betide anyone who is sick, unemployed or has a disability in Cameron’s Britain. Those who need our support are finding it is fast disappearing into a cloud of millionaires – those who run our country and those who refuse to give up just a small proportion of their lavish lifestyles. Shame on all of you and shame on our country for allowing this to happen.

The media need to get over their Europhobia

Labour Party

I’ve written a blog for Total Politics on the Eurosceptic British press and why I think the public are genuinely interested in what goes on in Brussels. You can read it in full below.

Politicians and specifically MEPs often face derision from the mainstream press, especially the right wing press. So it was hardly surprising to read in The Daily Express that MEPs are the least trusted profession, overtaking that of the more traditionally disliked professions.

The survey was hardly ground breaking and actually doesn’t reflect the experiences I’ve had in 10 years as an MEP – and that’s not because I’ve surrounded myself in Brussels Bureaucracy.

Last weekend was a good example. I was invited to take part in the Sunday Times web chat. It followed the week of the story where four MEPs had been caught taking cash for their services. It was of course disgraceful and I was fully prepared to answer questions relating to this terrible episode.

But to my surprise the chat which ensued couldn’t have been more different in terms of the questions people asked. There was genuine interest in Brussels, in the work we do; in how legislation is made and in what the Brussels machine does.  Most people just wanted to know more, they were intrigued.

There is more interest in European politics than the media gives the general public credit for. Indeed one of the Europe correspondents, who I know well, told me recently how difficult it is for him to get anything past his editors about Brussels. ‘The news editors back home just don’t get it’ he said somewhat dejected.

What I find most curious is the disdain the media seems to perpetuate in this country. Other parts of Europe enjoy fruitful debate. Their media closely follows the work of the Parliament, it understands it and as a result is able to more closely investigate and scrutinise it.  I would welcome the same level of scrutiny in this country.

The truth is the British media seems to be dominated by the likes of Nigel Farage, who comes across as media friendly and provides good TV. The Boris Johnson of Europe I Suppose. How many times has the Labour leader in Europe, or the Conservative for that matter, appeared on Question Time? They haven’t. But Farage who isn’t a member of a mainstream political party in this country receives disproportionate coverage precisely because he’s considered to be so entertaining.

There is one saving grace; BBC Parliament, specifically the Record Europe, covers European politics more seriously than any other outlet in this country and therefore gives a better reflection of what we are really about. I hope this spreads across to other media agencies and the public can get a better reflection of what we are really about. They deserve it after all.