Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

At the start of this week results came out from Switzerland’s referendum on migration, revealing narrow backing for plans to impose a cap on migrants. The ‘Federal Popular Initiative Against Mass Immigration’, which was passed by 50.3% to 49.7%, represents the effective rejection of freedom of movement pacts negotiated between Switzerland and the EU. The initiative, which was put forward by the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe Swiss People’s Party, was not just opposed by those on the left but by figures across the Swiss the business community. In the aftermath of the vote economists at Credit Suisse wrote that Switzerland would pay “a high price” for its decision, and the Swiss Bankers Association sought to distance itself from the move. One financier told the Financial Times, “The Swiss are delusional to think they can just cherry pick what they want from the EU”.

The wider implications of Switzerland’s decision look to be severe. Despite being a non-EU country Switzerland has historically benefited from many of the trade perks enjoyed by EU member states. Indeed, UKIP and Eurosceptic Tories have pointed at Switzerland as a model of the type of country Britain could supposedly become if we left the EU. However, the result of Monday’s plebiscite has led the European Commission to re-examine Switzerland’s access to the European single market, with all treaties now up for negotiation. EC vice-president Viviane Reding pointed out on Monday that free trade and free movement were inextricable: “You take them all or you leave them all.”

Switzerland’s neighbours voiced similar warnings, with Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, calling the move “worrying” for a small country which “lives off the EU.” His German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said the country had “harmed itself,” and the Luxembourg government were also concerned for Switzerland’s economic prospects, with their foreign minister warning “there will be consequences”.

The response to the Swiss referendum shows the absurdity of the ‘pick ‘n’ choose’ approach to the EU advocated by many on Britain’s political right – especially those, including David Cameron, who plan to limit freedom of movement for migrants. Even Switzerland, a country which has over several hundred years been very successful at negotiating its relationship with the EU, will ultimately struggle to decide things entirely on its own terms.

Being part of Europe is ultimately about maturity. It requires certain sacrifices, but in return we get tremendous rewards. As the Swiss referendum looks set to demonstrate, you cannot shirk your responsibilities without jeopardising your privileges. The present UK government would do well to take note.

On Thursday, meanwhile, it was good to see Labour fend off UKIP at the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election. The run-up to the vote was dominated by headlines about Nigel Farage’s attempts to woo “patriotic, working-class Labour voters”, and Labour frontbenchers including Douglas Alexander – who last week set up Labour’s “anti-Ukip” unit – worked with party members to expose the ‘purple peril’ in the constituency. In the end, despite an aggressive UKIP campaign, Labour extended their share of the vote, and it was the two coalition parties who suffered from UKIP’s poll bounce.

Although the outcome sent a strong signal that Labour can withstand UKIP pressure in Northern communities, the extremely low turnout was a source of concern. It is vital that politicians of all parties reconnect with the electorate, otherwise apathy will translate into votes for UKIP and other parties even further to the right.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Europe dominated this week, with Euroscepticism grabbing headlines not just in the UK but across the continent. On Thursday European Commission vice president Viviane Reding accused British leaders of bowing to populism on the European issue, describing many of the supposed threats the EU brings as “the invention of politicians who like to have populist movements in order to win in elections”. She suggested that by succumbing to short-term electoral temptations politicians were potentially “destroying the futures” of their people.

Reding was joined by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, who described Eurosceptics in his own country as “brainless people”. And throughout the week there was criticism of the UK in many quarters, with a journalist writing in the widely read Spanish daily El Pais that “How Great Britain Turned Into Little England could easily be 2014’s bestselling essay”.

None of this dissuaded Eurosceptics, and the week ended with a large bloc of Conservative MPs writing to David Cameron calling for a national veto of EU Laws. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, who led the 95-strong group behind the letter, described the EU’s effect on lawmaking as “acidic and corrosive” and said it undermined British democracy.

While senior Tories were quick to slap down the issue – William Hague called the requirements set out in the letter “unworkable” – they are largely responsible for the increasingly forceful and unrealistic demands made by Eurosceptics. David Cameron’s policy of appeasement has seen he and other frontbenchers deliberately conflate the Europe question with ‘dog whistle’ issues like immigration, in order to try and convince those on the right that he is on their side.

What Cameron underestimates is the inexorable nature of Euroscepticism – the ‘ever greater’ isolation that UKIP and Conservative diehards want from Europe and the rest of the world. Being anti-EU is in essence an irrational position, which ignores economic and industrial arguments in favour of a hazy and parochial utopia. It does not allow for compromise. The more ground the Government concedes to its own party’s ultras, the more they will ask for – and the more unpleasant, distorted and short-term the debate will become.

This week also saw a major victory in the battle against homophobia in sport, with former Everton, Aston Villa and West Ham footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger becoming The Premier League’s first openly gay player. Hitzlsperger, who recently retired, told a German newspaper “I was never ashamed of being who I am,” but admitted that homosexuality is heavily stigmatised in professional football.

The former German international played at centre-back for most of his career, and was renowned for his no nonsense style – comprehensively putting paid to stereotypes about gay sportsmen. There are hopes that, with many of supporters’ prejudices against homosexuality retreating, there will be more openly gay players in future.

Social attitudes have come a long way since 1990, when Justin Fashanu became British football’s first openly gay player. Fashanu’s coming out resulted in abuse and ostracism – he tragically committed suicide in 1998 – but a lot has changed since then. I am delighted that Hitzlsperger has taken such a bold position, and would like to congratulate him on his courage. Hopefully more gay players will follow suit, and we will finally be able to overcome the beautiful game’s biggest taboo.

The EU Must Now Set the Gold Standard in Data Protection

Labour Party

Yesterday the parliament discussed the recent revelations from Anthony Snowden about NSA surveillance programmes.

The council made their position clear that; they are unwilling to make any concrete statements about actions they might take until they have all the facts. But they did say that, as a general principle, they are very concerned about spying operations within the EU and on EU citizens.  They also acknowledged the fact that current EU legislation does not cover data usage by a foreign government and that future legislation, if it emanates solely from within the EU is unlikely to be able to deal with this problem, so an international perspective is crucial.

After the representative from the council had spoken, Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding gave a speech.  Reding mentioned that High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton had spoken to Secretary of State John Kerry and expressed their grave concerns about these revelations.  Reding also mentioned the difficult position this put the EU-US trade negotiations in.  She said there could be no agreement without trust between the EU and the US.  Reding said that the specific questions that have been put to the US are on the volume of information, parameters for the extraction and what judicial oversight there might be for EU citizens.

Reding urged member state governments and the parliament to now move forward with data protection legislation stating ‘A strong data protection regime is the only way to rebuild trust’.  The fact is that the world will be looking to the EU to set the gold standard in data protection

As you might imagine, most MEPs are shocked and appalled by the allegations and are demanding action.  Some members from the S&D group have demanded a freeze on EU-US trade negotiations until this is resolved.  That might be going a little far, but it does illustrate how seriously we take this issue.  Unsurprisingly, the Tories have a slightly different perspective, with Timothy Kirkhope and Geoffrey Van Orden coming out against the parliaments position.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

This week, 8 March, marks International Women’s Day. It’s a day which has been observed since the early 1900s. And in 2013 we still have very many measures which we must continue to fight for, not just equality in the workplace but basic rights such as the right to an education for girls.

Equal pay for equal work is one of those things, last week we observed European Equal Pay Day, where research found that there is still a 16.2% gender pay gap between men and women’s earnings across Europe.

The day was marked on the 28 February, or the 59th day of the year – the number of extra days women have to work to match the amount earned by men.

As, Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU’s Justice Commissioner pointed out: “The principle of equal pay for equal work is written in the EU Treaties since 1957. It is high time that it is put in practice everywhere.

“Let us work together to deliver results not only on Equal Pay Days, but on all 365 days a year,” she said.

The day reminds us that for many women unequal pay and conditions exist for women and Reding suggests that while the pay gap has declined, this is due to a decline in mens earnings rather than an increase for women.

Of all the member states the UK had the eighth biggest gap at 19.5%. The biggest was Estonia at almost 28% and the lowest gap was found in Slovenia at 0.9%

You can find out more information by visiting the Homepage of Vice-President Viviane Reding, EU Justice Commissioner:  http://ec.europa.eu/reding and the European Commission – Gender pay gap: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/gender-pay-gap/index_en.htm

And a report on the story is available here.

Also to coincide with international Women’s Day, is a project by Hollywood A lister’s, including Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto who have all come together to tell the stories of nine unknown girls who struggle to get an education- something which should be a universal right.

The four actresses have been joined by Selena Gomez, Priyanka Chopra, Chloë Moretz, Salma Hayek, Kerry Washington and Alicia Keys who have given time to make a documentary about the problem called Girl Rising, which has its premiere in New York on Thursday.

Vanessa Thorpe of the Observer says, the film, made by documentary director Richard E Robbins, “began as an investigation into a fact universally acknowledged by international aid workers: that educating girls in developing countries is the quickest and most enduring way to improve conditions not just for them but for whole communities.” You can read her report in full here.

While education is a universal right, it shouldn’t be taken for granted. I hope this film has the desired impact and improves educational opportunities for girls across the globe.

Closer to home there was a by election, in Eastleigh, few of  us could have missed this. It came as a surprise to many that UKIP polled so well receiving 27.8% of the vote. This is something all parties must be mindful of. You can read Toby Helm’s review of the by election here.

BBC Worldwide on New Proposals for Women on Boards

Labour Party

Today I discussed on the BBC news channels and BBC World the revised plans for compulsory EU-wide quotas for women on company boards. You can see my interview here.

The European Commission will to press for 40% minimum female representation among non-executive board members by 2020 for publicly-listed companies except small and medium-sized firms, the Press Association reported.

Public sector listed companies will have to meet the target two years earlier the report said.

The revised gender rules do not apply to member states “which have already taken measures for more balanced boards… so long as they can demonstrate the measures are of ‘equivalent efficacy’ to reach the objective” (of the EU Directive).

The report explains what this will mean for the UK: ‘But all member states “will have to lay down ‘appropriate and dissuasive’ sanctions for companies in breach of the Directive”, says the proposal.

The Commission says the share of company board posts held by women in EU countries average less than 15%, compared with 16% in the UK.

According to latest UK figures in the Cranfield School of Management Female FTSE Report, female board representation could reach 27% by 2015, and 37% by 2020.

That should put the UK in the category excluded by Brussels from the new provisions.’

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.

Interview in Evening Standard on my work for women

Labour Party

I am interviewed in today’s Evening Standard by Political Editor Joe Murphy on my work in Europe on women, and especially on the need for more women on company boards. You can read the interview here.

Here is the interview:

Britain risks looking like a “dinosaur” if David Cameron blocks tough quotas for women in company boardrooms, Labour’s Euro-MP for London said today.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, Mary Honeyball said heavyweight nations such as France and Germany were dismayed that the UK Government has forged an alliance with tiny states such as Latvia and Malta to stop quotas.

She said: “We are going to look like dinosaurs if we stand in the way of action to promote women without even waiting to see what the detailed proposals are.

“What David Cameron has done in putting together this strange alliance of small countries is not going down at all well. It does not make us look powerful or impressive. It just looks like Britain is being prehistoric and difficult.”

Ms Honeyball, who represents the UK Labour representative in the Women’s Rights committee in the Strasbourg parliament, is backing European commissioner Viviane Reding who is drafting plans to force listed companies to reserve at least 40 per cent of their non-executive directorships  for women by 2020 or face fines.

UK ministers prefer a voluntary target of 25 per cent of FTSE 100 seats by 2015 but Ms Honeyball said: “I don’t think that is ambitious enough. Quotas have really worked well in Norway and France and now it is just accepted. But there is a culture in this country and when you have so few women on board it becomes  difficult to break through.”

The MEP compares the controversy with the row over all-women shortlists in the Labour Party in the 1990s. “There was serious opposition and even legal action to stop it, and then there were all the jibes about Blair Babes and women who only got to Parliament through quotas. But that has all gone away now because women MPs have shown they can get on with the job.”

She would like Ed Miliband’s shadow ministerial team to come out fighting for Ms Reding’s plan when the details are published. “They are keeping a bit quiet at the moment.”

The MEP, a leading campaigner at Strasbourg against sex traffickers, revealed how her efforts to protect young women were reinforced by the horrific discovery that an old school friend who vanished in the 1970s had been one of the victims of serial killers Fred and Rose West.

Lucy Partington went missing in 1973 and her fate was not known for another 20 years. Ms Honeyball,  an 18-year-old growing up in Cheltenham, was among school friends questioned by police baffled by her disappearance.

“I knew her quite well in our last two years at school,” said the MEP. “After she disappeared there was no news at all for all those years. I don’t think any of us in our worst nightmares dreamed what had happened to her.”

In fact Lucy, a cousin of novelist Martin Amis, had been abducted while waiting at a bus stop that the young Mary also used. But that was not known until her remains were excavated from the Wests’ basement in 1994.

“I heard the news on television and they showed a photograph taken of her at the time she disappeared,” she said. “I immediately phoned a friend we were both at school with. Your first reaction is to think ‘this cannot be possible’, but then it sinks in over time and it is something that stays with you forever.”

Ms Honeyball, an MEP for 12 years, has used her contacts in Europe to campaign for tougher laws against people traffickers who bring thousands of young women and girls into London as sex workers. She praised the Metropolitan Police for making serious efforts to prosecute the criminals behind the trade but says the police in some of the countries where the women originate do not bother.

“All crimes are  underground, but sex trafficking is deeper underground than most,” she said. “But it is such a London issue because this is where many women and girls from eastern Europe end up. Political pressure is needed to make other countries treat this as the serious crime it is.”

She is also trying to ban sex ads in local newspapers, which she says are often used by the criminal gangs who have coerced women into prostitution. “I sympathise with local newspapers that are struggling, but that’s no excuse for taking adds that are actually part of a trade that is not only morally unacceptable, but also criminal.”

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Part time work and self-employment is replacing full time employment for women. Well that’s according to the TUC which found the number of women in full-time employee jobs has fallen by 170,000, nearly 200,000 more women now describe themselves as being self-employed.

Their report conceded that while men are still twice as likely to be self-employed, women account for the majority of the increase in self-employed workers over the last four years.

Of grave concern to the TUC is that some of what has been described as ‘self-employment’ is “bogus and a way for employers to save on National Insurance costs and key employee benefits such as pensions, paid holidays and sick pay.”

In addition they rightly highlight that the poor pay associated with self-employment is shown by pay trends over the last decade.

The median income of self-employed workers has fallen from £11,300 in 2001 to just £10,300 in 2010, even before allowing for inflation.

The average income for employees has risen over the same period and is now nearly twice as high (£18,900). You can read their full release here.

The statistics reveal that women remain vulnerable in this current economic climate.

I have said this before, but women perform just as well as their male counterparts at university and in their early careers but something happens and they don’t progress in the same way.

That’s why I believe we must help women who are perfectly capable of performing as well as male colleagues but for whatever reason get overlooked.

Statistics like these are precisely why I have advocated moves such as supporting Commissioner Reding’s plans for mandatory quotas on boards. It’s true we don’t yet know the exact detail of her proposals, I am hopeful that she will put forward robust measures to address the problem.

I was really pleased to read last week that the Royal Mail chief executive backs workplace quotas for women. Moya Greene, chief executive of Royal Mail, said she would champion the concept of quotas to bring more women into the work place and boardroom. Her support will be invaluable in making this happen.

She told an audience at the Communications Workers Union’s women’s section in Peterborough that women were currently “not represented as they should be in society or companies”.

“There is something about the UK – for all its egalitarianism, women are not represented as they should be in society or companies,” she said. You can read the full article here.

What does the EU do for us?

Labour Party

I often wish we in Britain had a better understanding of the European Union and what it means to every single one of us. The one-sided view of the EU prevalent throughout British politics, the media and our general view of the world more often than not misrepresents what the EU and the European Parliament are about.

Since today is designated as Europe Day, it is very relevant to look at these matters at this time.

The public consultation just launched by European Commissioner Viviane Reding is one such case where it would really help those of us in Britain if we had a clearer understanding of the benefits conferred by membership of the European Union.

Since the Commission is asking people to tell them what obstacles they face in exercising their rights as EU citizens, the outcome of this consultation will be positive for many of us.

In common with most British people, you may well be asking, what rights. The problem is, to some extent, semantics. Both “citizens” and “rights” have connotations in the UK which are not always positive. We do not like to call ourselves citizens and many of us associate the idea of rights with an ideology we don’t like.

It’s therefore necessary to look at what “rights for EU citizens” actually means in practice. Firstly, these “rights” are in addition to, not instead of, what you have as a citizen of your own member state. The EU doesn’t overrule or take over whatever you are entitled to as a British citizen.

Following its EU citizenship report in 2010, the European Commission has already taken action to deliver the following:

  •  rights for the victims of crime, especially cross-border crime
  • slashing red tape for those registering a car in another EU country
  • banning extra credit card charges for online shoppers
  • reinforcing rights to a fair trial
  • clarifying property rights for international couples

The  Commission now wants to know what other problems people face moving about the EU, whether for work or study, exercising the right to vote or with consumer issues. The consultation will end on 9 September this year.

The most cherished EU right is, of course, free movement across the Union. In case you are wondering, the additional rights you get as a result of Britain’s membership of the EU are:

  • the right to vote in local and European elections in the EU country you live in even though it may not be where your nationality is registered
  • the right to consular protection abroad under the same conditions as nationals of the country concerned
  • the right to petition the European Parliament, complain to the European Ombudsman and to take part in the European Citizens’ Initiative.

During the European Year of Citizens in 2013 the Commission will publish a second EU citizenship report which will serve as an action plan for the removal of remaining obstacles that hinder people from fully utilising what comes to them as a result of membership of the European Union.

Increasing the Number of Women on Boards is Taking too Long

Labour Party

A European Commission report published today shows that limited progress towards increasing the number of women on company boards has been achieved one year after EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding called for credible self-regulatory measures.  Just one in seven board members at Europe’s top firms is a woman (13.7%). This is a slight improvement from 11.8% in 2010. However, it would still take more than 40 years to reach a significant gender balance (at least 40% of both sexes) at this rate.

Gender balance in top positions has been shown to contribute to better business performance, improved competitiveness and economic gains. For example, a report by McKinsey found that gender-balanced companies have a 56% higher operating profit compared to male-only companies. Ernst & Young looked at the 290 largest publicly-listed companies. They found that the earnings at companies with at least one woman on the board were significantly higher than in those that had no female board member.

To identify appropriate measures for addressing the persistent lack of gender diversity in boardrooms of listed companies in Europe, the Commission launched a public consultation today. The Commission is seeking views on possible action at EU level, including legislative measures, to redress the gender imbalance on company boards. The public consultation will run until 28 May 2012. Following this input, the Commission will take a decision on further action later this year.

Read the full Commission Press release here.