MEPs pass important resolution on LGBT rights

Labour Party

Yesterday the European Parliament passed a resolution strongly regretting that the fundamental rights of LGBT people are not always fully upheld in the EU. Authored by Austrian Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek, the resolution calls on the European Commission, EU member states and EU agencies to work jointly on a roadmap to protect LGBT fundamental rights, similar to existing EU strategies against discrimination based on sex, disability or ethnicity.

MEPs put forward several themes and objectives that should be addressed in the EU roadmap, in areas such as employment, education, health, goods and services, families and freedom of movement, freedom of expression, hate crime, asylum, foreign relations etc. The resolution clearly states that this comprehensive policy must respect member states’ competences.

The current EU framework decision on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law should be revised to include bias crime and incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Furthermore the European Commission should produce guidelines to ensure that the directives on the right of EU citizens and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the member states and on the right to family reunification are implemented so as to ensure respect for all forms of families legally recognised under member states’ national laws.

In the field of education, the Commission should promote equality and non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout its youth and education programmes, says the text. It should also facilitate the sharing of good practice in formal education among member states, including teaching materials, anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies, in a non-binding way.

MEPs also say that member states should introduce or review legal gender recognition procedures so they fully respect transgender people’s right to dignity and bodily integrity, e.g. to preclude any requirement for them to undergo sterilization. They add that the Commission should continue to work with the World Health Organization to stop considering transgender individuals mentally ill.

I am proud to have voted in favour of this resolution. It marks another step in the fight against discrimination towards LGBT people. The European Parliament also deserves credit for taking the lead on this very important issue.

The tobacco lobby’s delaying tactics gain traction in Strasbourg

Labour Party

Delaying tactics by right-wingers during the plenary session in Strasbourg last week have jeopardised the European Parliament’s bid to make it harder for cigarette companies to recruit underage smokers.

A vote on the Tobacco Products Directive had originally been planned for the September session, but it was delayed for a month following representations from MEPs on the right – including Tory and UKIP politicians.

The Directive is a response to calls from the World Health Organisation. The proposed legislation asks for cigarette packs to be 75% covered by health warnings – a measure which has been proven to discourage child smokers. It also restricts access to ‘slim’ cigarettes and those with flavourings, and brings in security measures to prevent illicit tobacco sales.

The decision to postpone the vote is part of a sustained effort by the tobacco lobby and right-of-centre politicians to stall progress. With the EU Presidency passing to Greece, a notoriously lax country when it comes to tobacco, in June and elections taking place in spring next year, they hope to filibuster the directive out of existence.

A lot has been made of the pressure exerted by cigarette companies, and in particular by Philip Morris International. I am not adverse to companies making their case (up to a point), and neither am I deaf to the arguments against the Directive. Like many in the Labour Party I have spent most of my career trying to strike the best possible balance between regulation and free choice. I know it is never easy. The job losses it has been suggested the Tobacco Products Directive will bring are small – around 2% at most – but not completely insignificant.

But what I do object to are tactics which push back decision-making indefinitely, and an approach which doesn’t engage with the issue, but instead looks to avoid the democratic process through obstruction and delay.

My own position is clear. I believe the health benefits of this Directive outweigh the economic counter-arguments. 70% of young people begin smoking while they are underage, and child smoking is currently on the rise in many EU Countries; every day in the UK 570 people aged between 11 and 15 start. This is an area where Europe lags behind other parts of the world, and one where action is clearly required.

The proposals in the Directive steer clear of products like cigars, which have an adult market. The focus is not on grown-ups making informed choices, but on young people who are being deliberately targeted. ‘Slims’, for example, are mainly bought by teenage girls who have been persuaded that smoking them is ‘elegant’.

Ultimately I think public health and the economy should be pulling in the same direction. Sacrificing the former in exchange for the latter can only bring about very short-term goals. In the end, I believe, a healthy society is a prosperous one.

I understand and welcome the fact that there are people on the other side of the argument who feel differently. But I ask that they vote accordingly when this issue next comes round in October, rather than once again throwing it into the long gr

A Cash Injection

Labour Party

Below you can read my article in this month’s Parliament Magazine supplement. I argue that whilst Europe enjoys the health benefits of immunisation, the EU must now work harder to ensure developing countries can do the same.

In the western world we take for granted that none of us will die from diseases like polio, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough or yellow fever. This happy state of affairs is thanks in large part to long running immunisation programmes and widespread vaccination across Europe. The same cannot be said for the developing world, however, where many people do not have access to these life saving vaccines.

In a recent visit to the European parliament, Bill Gates, who has campaigned tirelessly on this issue, told us that the world is missing 20 per cent of its children. The reason is straightforward: too many families do not receive access to immunisations against vaccine preventable diseases. The problem is inevitably most acute in developing countries. In Nigeria the number of vaccine preventable deaths climbs to a massive 60 per cent.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that around 1.5 million deaths among children under five years old were due to diseases that could have been prevented by routine vaccination. This represents 17 per cent of the total global mortality in children under five years of age.

The EU, through the member states and the European commission, funds a number of excellent organisations which help to increase the number of children being immunised in developing countries. Organisations like the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) have helped to expand immunisation coverage in some of the world’s poorest countries. Their work has meant that 326 million children have been immunised and over 5.5 million future deaths have been prevented. But despite GAVI’s efforts, and those of other organisations, over 1.5 million children continue to die each year from diseases which would have been prevented by vaccination.

Smallpox was eradicated world-wide in 1977, while polio is almost there. Between 2000 and 2008, measles deaths were reduced by 85 per cent and maternal and neonatal tetanus has almost been eliminated as a public health disease.

The European commission will have contributed over €86m by the end of March this year towards the global vaccination programme. These contributions derive from both the European development fund and the development cooperation instrument. While it is very good news that the commission is taking vaccination seriously, there is scope for much more to be done.

Money is urgently needed for vaccinations. For the price of a cup of coffee, a child can be vaccinated against five of the major childhood killers, including haemophilus influenzae B, diphtheria and tetanus. A better health outlook also brings economic benefits by lowering the burden on overstretched healthcare systems and freeing up for social provision such as education, as well as cutting down the indirect costs such as time off work to look after sick children.

In order to gain a commitment to vaccination from the European parliament, I, along with fellow MEPs Veronique De Keyser, Sean Kelly, Bill Newton-Dunn and Marie-Christine Vergiat, have launched written declaration 4/2012. It urges the European commission to continue its work in reducing the number of vaccine preventable deaths in its future external actions. I have previously blogged about the written declaration here.

I urge MEPs to sign this written declaration. Vaccination is crucial for all children in order that they may live the lives they deserve. Most of us in the EU will have benefitted from vaccinations for polio, diphtheria, tetanus and many more diseases which were killers in previous generations. It is now time we made sure developing countries are given the same chance.

My written declaration states that “disease prevalence is a barrier to achieving sustainable socio-economic development” and, with 1.7 million dying from vaccine preventable diseases every year, it urges the European commission to continue and increase its support for immunisation programmes. It must receive the backing of the majority of deputies (by 10 May 2012) before it is forwarded to parliament president Martin Schulz.

I have previously blogged about the written declaration here.

The three deadliest words in the world… It’s a Girl

Labour Party

Earlier this week I watched this shocking trailer for new documentary film “It’s A Girl“. The film, which will be relased later this year, takes a look at the horrifying phenomenon of gendercide.

It is  over 20 years since Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen brought this problem to the world’s attention. Today though, women and girls continue to be killed, aborted and abandoned solely on the basis of their gender.

Sickeningly, the UN estimates that today the number of “missing” women and girls has reached around 200 million.

This means that around 9 million more females are demographically  “missing” than the total number of people believed to have been killed in all of the conflicts and wars of the 20th century combined.

But where are these missing women and girls?

Domestic violence, including honour and dowry killings, is one major cause of gender related deaths. A World Health Organisation study of 7 countries found that between 40% – 70% of female murder victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

Girls are often neglected in terms of access to food and medicine in comparison to their male counterparts. In South Asia for example, girls are less likely than boys to be immunised against vaccine preventable diseases.

Despite being forbidden by law, female infanticide and sex selective abortion remain common in countries including China and India. These two practices are highlighted in the trailer of what looks like it will be a hard hitting documentary. One of the most scarring scenes shows a woman talking with apparent indifference about killing 8 of her new born baby girls.  

Death can often be the result of a lack of access to medical care following gender specific operations such as female genital mutilation and unsafe abortion. Lack of adequate care during and after pregnancy is another cause of mortality amongst (pregnant) women. 

These are just some of the ways in which women and girls are killed, aborted or die, simply for being born with the “wrong” gender.

They are not reasons though.

The real reason behind the loss of these women and girls is the inherent inequality that continues to value men above women in societies.