Friday, 26 July 2013

Time to expose UKIP MEPs for what they really are – lazy & unprincipled

By Rebecca Taylor, Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament
and Petros Fassoulas, Chairman of the European Movement UK

This blog post was first published on

UKIP MEPs are infamous for being not just Britain's laziest members of the European Parliament, but among the laziest in Europe, as figures from VoteWatch and EP Committee minutes have shown (and the Mirror graphically exposed recently).

UKIP MEPs’ excuse for their lack of graft is that their job is to get the UK out of the EU and they don't need to bother with anything else, like actually representing their constituents’ interests in Brussels.

Of course if they were politicians of principle, they could refuse to take their seats after elected. But then they would forfeit their MEP salary and allowances, which they don't seem keen to do. In fact UKIP are on record as boasting about how much money their MEPs claim, for not doing their jobs properly. This not being enough, two UKIP MEPs were jailed for expense fraud and benefit fraud and last year two further UKIP MEPs were forced to repay nearly £40k to the European Parliament after being found to have used allowances improperly.

In addition, UKIP MEPs are far less transparent than MEPs from other UK parties, who publish their expenses on their websites and regularly update them (Rebecca Taylors can be found here).

Mr Farage was caught out by the BBC's Andrew Neil, when he was asked why he and his deputy Mr Nuttall had not published their expenses for 2 years despite promising to do so. Mr Farage was unable to produce a convincing response, saying instead that he was "very busy" and that he had "lost some receipts".

But what does Nigel Farage does while he is in Brussels, paid by British tax payers? Does he stand up for British interests? Does he work on legislation that will improve the life of his constituents? No, of course not, he spends his time not attending committee and not bothering to vote even when issues are important for the UK. European Liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt famously accused Nigel Farage of being the EU's biggest waste of money. He has a point. Mr Farage has failed to attend 48% of Plenary votes, has never drafted a report and he is joint bottom when it comes to Parliamentary questions asked.

As the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is important for the fishing industry in the South East of England, the region Mr Farage represents, he has tried to make it look like he was doing something by "campaigning", which seemed to consist of sending out angry press releases. However, he has never bothered to take part in Fisheries Committee meetings and when mammoth cross-party efforts by centre-right, Socialist, Liberal and Green MEPs ensured an historic reform of the CFP, which will end overfishing and safeguard the future of the fishing industry in Europe, Mr Farage was nowhere to be found. He did not even bother to show up to the final fisheries committee final vote (which was very close) and he disappeared halfway through the plenary vote.

In fact, according to Committee minutes, he attended just one of 42 Fisheries Committee meetings between February 2010 and January 2013, when he resigned from all Committees. In fact UKIP MEPs have attended just 30% of Committee meetings.

Which is a real shame and huge waste. The real graft in Brussels is done in committee, so by skipping committee meetings UKIP miss the chance to exert any influence and help shape laws that affect their constituents. They claim that there is no point as they would be outvoted every time, which is patently ridiculous when key votes can (and often do) go one way or another with only a vote to spare.

Committee work requires an MEP to understand the proposal in question, meet with businesses, NGOs, pressure groups, ordinary citizens, trade unions, national government representatives etc. to hear their positions, develop amendments that will not only be workable, but will also get sufficient support from their political group as well as other MEPs, and keep track of the hundreds, sometimes thousands of other amendments. Doing all this properly is hard work and very time consuming, so no wonder UKIP MEPs prefer to prance round the UK making speeches to their followers and sending out angry press releases instead. Much easier!

UKIP's deputy leader Paul Nuttall MEP is a point in case. He is a Member of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee, but in nearly three years had attended only twice. According to figures by VoteWatch he is 736th (out of 753 MEPs) when it comes to Plenary sessions attended. He is joint bottom both for reports and opinions drafted (actually he hasnt drafted a single one!).

This is again out of principle; he thinks his time would be better used elsewhere. Or he does until he realises he might get some bad publicity as happened recently.

The Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee recently debated and voted on the EU tobacco directive, which included the regulation of e-cigarettes. Like-minded MEPs from several parties worked to table sensible amendments on e-cigarettes and it all came to head in the Committee vote.

Knowing that the key amendment on e-cigarettes required all the votes it could get and that Mr Nuttall never attends committee, e-cigarettes users (some of whom were Mr Nuttalls constituents) were encouraged to contact his office. Some were ignored, some received the same generic e-mail response they had received several months previously, and at least one was told Mr Nuttall would not attend the tobacco directive vote.

They were dismayed and began complaining about him on Twitter. Then all of a sudden Mr Nuttall changed his mind and showed up at the Committee meeting (his 3rd visit in 3 years!), although he didn't bother to vote on many amendments.

This experience was a great opportunity for many voters to realise that while UKIP shout loudly, they do very little else. Many of them expressed surprise; UKIP like to portray themselves as standing up for "ordinary British people"; what they actually do is ignore the very people they claim to represent.

Needless to say, Mr Nuttall's constituents were left unimpressed, but at least they were able to compare the efforts to shape EU laws made by hard working LibDem MEPs (among others) with the blink and you'll miss it work done by UKIP MEPs.

Mr Nuttalls attitude shows that UKIP MEPs are indeed lazy, but only when they think they can get away with it. They claim to be avoiding the hard graft of parliamentary committee work out of principle, but those principles are soon chucked by the wayside if they suspect they will get any bad publicity.

Put under a little scrutiny, especially by UK voters who are vocal, active on social media and in regular contact with broadcast media, and suddenly UKIP MEPs decide that attending EP Committees is not such a waste of time after all.

Time for a lot more scrutiny of UKIP!

Monday, 22 July 2013

My support for the 'Sandwich Protest' against unfair internships in Brussels

Hundreds of trainees working for organisations across Brussels descended on the sunny Place du Luxembourg last week to stage what has been dubbed the 'Sandwich Protest' - a demonstration to raise awareness of the poor working conditions and unfair remuneration of interns.

According to the organisers, a group called BXL Intern, the protest was so called because trainees in Brussels who do low paid or unpaid internships often cannot afford to pay for a proper lunch, and some have to sustain themselves by hunting down free sandwich buffets at conferences and other events.

The protestors' demands were far from unreasonable: a liveable wage, fair conditions, decent work, and an end to exploitation. The sad truth is that due to the current economic climate, many companies, NGOs and even top institutions based in Brussels are hiring interns to do the work of full time employees, paying them either very little or nothing at all, and offering no job stability or any kind of work guarantee for the future.  

Although I was unable to attend the protest myself due to work commitments in the UK, I strongly support the demonstrators and all their demands. Internships should provide a valuable learning experience, which acts as transition between education and professional life. It is disgraceful that organisations are taking on extremely well qualified young people as interns to do full time roles as a purely cost-cutting measure.

Furthermore, unpaid internships simply must  end. Unpaid internships lead to social inequality, as those who are unable to financially support themselves inevitably lose out on these experiences or end up living precariously and running up debts. 

The European Parliament's Youth Intergroup, of which I am a Vice President, is starting a campaign to introduce a set of internship quality standards and minimum level of pay for all interns working in the Parliament. Currently, only trainees taking part in the official Schuman scholarship training programme are guaranteed a salary (around 1200 EUR per month), whereas the payment of all other interns is at the discretion of the MEP or political group for whom they work. We have therefore launched an online survey which will hopefully give us a comprehensive insight into the working conditions and level of payment for interns across the political groups in the Parliament. We intend to use this information as a basis for our campaign.

I will be following the progress of this movement closely, and I am happy to support Brussels intern groups in anyway I can once Parliament reconvenes after the summer break.  

Please note that (naturally) I pay my interns a living wage!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

ENVI vote on tobacco directive - what happened, what it means & what's next

The European Parliament's Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) committee voted yesterday on the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). The current tobacco directive dates from 2001 and there have been many developments in tobacco control since then including the fact that all EU countries have signed up to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

By signing up to the FCTC, EU countries have agreed to implement various evidence based tobacco control measures, although countries are at different stages of implementation.

ENVI is the lead committee on the tobacco directive and its report with all the adopted amendments will now go forward to plenary, a vote of the whole Parliament, in September 2013.

So what happened with the vote today?

First of all, a number of key amendments that will help in the fight against tobacco were adopted, although some by very small margins (3 votes!). These included:
  • health warning covering 75% of tobacco packaging (plain/standardised packaging across the EU was rejected);
  •  ban on slim cigarettes;
  • ban on "lipstick"' and "perfume" cigarette packaging;
  • ban on characterising flavours e.g. chocolate flavoured cigarettes;
  •  possibility for individual countries to ban the distance sales (e.g. internet sales) of tobacco products, but no EU wide ban; possibility for individual countries to introduce more stringent national provisions e.g. Ireland will not be prevented from introducing plain packaging (intention already announced).

In addition, a number of rather technical amendments relating to further incorporating the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) such as rules on how tar levels are measured, were also adopted.

So those of us who want to fight the public health scourge that is tobacco, which kills 700,000 Europeans a year, were happy with many of the outcomes of the vote.

However (now for the bad news.....), attempts by Liberal MEPs (including myself and my North West of England colleague Chris Davies) to push for better  regulation of electronic cigarettes using consumer regulation, rather than medicines legislation, sadly failed.

The Environment committee voted down (45 to 25) the amendment backed by Liberal MEPs which proposed tightening up and better enforcing consumer regulation applying to e-cigarettes, and instead voted in favour (44 to 27) of regulating e-cigarettesas medicines.

I was very disappointed by the vote on e-cigs as while I understand the desire to make sure that products are well regulated, I believe improvements can be made without having to authorise them as medicines. I would however leave the medicines route as an option for e-cigarette producers who wish to make a health claim (i.e. to say that it helps you to stop smoking as nicotine gums and patches do).

My specific concerns are as follows:

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·         <!--[endif]-->In many EU countries, anything authorised as a medicine can only be sold in a pharmacy. So if e-cigs become medicines, in many countries, they will become less available than tobacco, which is not in the interests of public health. Furthermore, pharmacists have mixed views, so some may choose not to sell them.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·         <!--[endif]-->The medicines route is supported by the tobacco industry, who hope to move into the ecig market (ecigs threaten their core business massively) and control it. They have huge financial resources so can buy in the expertise needed to get medicines authorisation, which may disadvantage smaller companies that have no link to the tobacco industry. I have no desire to be nice to the tobacco industry!

My nightmare scenario is that e-cigarette availability becomes so poor in some EU countries that ex-smokers get pushed back to tobacco. Just for the record, I do not believe that the medicines route is a de-facto ban on e-cigarettes, but is unnecessary over-regulation.

However ALL IS NOT LOST! The ENVI committee report has to pass through full parliament ("plenary") in September or October and I for one will be working with colleagues to once again table amendments that will regulate e-cigarettes sensibly. I will also then be working on persuading as many MEPs as possible to support those amendments (as I did for the ENVI votes and also in the Legal Affairs Committee). We may have more chance to get sufficient support when the whole parliament votes.