Update from Sarah Ludford MEP
Welcome to my London LibDem members’ update, where I let you know what I have been doing in the European Parliament and across the London region recently.
I’ve had the great privilege of being London’s Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for a good while now, but the job continues to fascinate me. I still work a great deal on issues of justice and fighting crime, but the role of an MEP stretches to a great many other topics of concern to London and my constituents.
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I look forward to seeing some of you at the LibDem Spring Conference this coming weekend; we are going to have some lively debates which refresh our enthusiasm. Then it's on to hard work for a great result in the London elections in May!
The news from Syria continues to be very grim. The obstruction of International Red Cross aid to the Baba Amr district of the bombed-out city of Homs has given rise to well-founded allegations that government forces are trying to hide evidence of killings. The EU summit of prime ministers last Friday in Brussels demanded that Assad stop the violence and human rights abuses and warned him he will be held accountable for his crimes. EU leaders backed UN/Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s exploration of ways to break the deadlock imposed by Russia and China and confirmed tougher economic sanctions and visa bans on more than 100 members of the regime. My group leader Guy Verhofstadt has been very outspoken on the failure of the international community to stop the killing in Syria, see more here and here. EU countries last week withdrew their ambassadors from Belarus because of the oppression there; I think the time has now come to kick Syrian ambassadors out of EU countries, since there is nothing to discuss with them.
I am pictured with Syrian activist and CNN video blogger Danny Abdul Dayem who has bravely reported on the crisis in Homs.
Security and justice start at home, of course. The danger cyclists face on our roads, much in the news, is an affront to both. This is a particular problem in London, with unacceptable numbers of deaths and serious injuries at perilous junctions like Euston Road at Kings Cross (pictured left). Indeed, it was reported this week that the Met police are considering charging Transport for London with corporate manslaughter for the death of cyclist Deep Lee at this junction because they failed to act on the results of a pedestrian safety report in 2008, see here, which said that ‘casualties were inevitable’.
Liberal Democrats are extremely active in the European Parliament, Westminster and City Hall to make roads safer. Caroline Pidgeon AM has successfully pressed for a review of all dangerous junctions, while transport minister Norman Baker MP recently announced a £15 million investment in cycling. I have worked with LibDem European leader Fiona Hall MEP to press for tougher action by the European Commission for retrofitting of mirrors and sensors on HGVs, as lorry blind spots are the cause of many collisions; you can see more about my campaigning on the issue here.
Roaming charges when travelling
Many people, including me, have been stung by high charges for using mobiles, smartphones or iPads abroad, on business or on holiday. Since 2007, and very much as a result of MEP campaigning, EU regulations have introduced price caps on cross border calls. The current rules expire this summer, so last week the European Parliament Industry committee voted for a lower cap on calls. Also, the new regulation will for the first time impose caps on data roaming – fees which incur when customers email or surf the internet while abroad.
Small business campaigning
MEPs are doing our bit to keep down the cost of running a company. A European campaign was launched last week by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the group to which LibDem MEPs belong, to make business easier for small firms, promote growth and create more jobs. The campaign aims to get rid of outdated EU laws, to simplify accounting rules, to modernise the VAT system, remove barriers to online sales across borders, and make debts owed from other EU countries easier to pursue. Of course we want to make the EU single market much more efficient and to shed red tape for all companies, but smaller firms and especially the micro ones of 10 or fewer employees need special help. I am pictured with the Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship, Antonio Tajani at the launch event, signing the manifesto. You can read more about the campaign here.
I was able to put the European Liberal business campaign into practice through meeting the team at the agency North London Business which assists business development in the north London boroughs. I was very interested in a training scheme they run partly funded by European money. Called ‘Exporting Success’, it advises small firms seeking to sell products and services abroad how to improve their chances, and you can see my press release here. It was great to hear that European money is directly helping London businesses to expand so they can hire more employees.
Keeping our privacy
The practices of Google in collating all our personal data from using their services in order to send us targeted ads have been much in the news lately. The European Commissioner who leads on data protection, Vivian Reding, has warned them they are headed for a tumble with EU privacy law, see here.Thus it was very timely that in Brussels last week I hosted a seminar for MEPs with Christopher Graham and his deputy David Smith who head up the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s data protection watchdog.
With scandals like press phone-hacking, 25 million lost child benefit records and misuse of online information, these need the greater enforcement powers for watchdogs that EU proposed reforms would grant. Last week 4 private investigators were jailed under the Fraud Act for illegal ‘blagging’ - obtaining private information by deception – but another man convicted of the same crime under the Data Protection Act was only given a £200 fine! I played a part in pressing through Brussels for the ICO to get increased powers and resources see here, but imprisonment needs to be a possible sanction for gross privacy breaches.
The EU proposes that consumers get more power over their data, for example a need for positive informed consent and to retrieve information previously surrendered through a ‘right to be forgotten’. We must though be careful not to over-promise on that score or to make business impossible to run through unworkable policies.
Ending European assistance to death row
The campaign over the last 18 months that I have run with others, for an end to the use of European exports of anaesthetic drugs as lethal injections in US executions, has resulted in several victories. The major one is that the European Commission has finally closed a loophole in EU law that allowed export of drugs such as sodium thiopental and pentobarbital without any checks, see here. This was after I presented a Written Declaration (the equivalent of a Westminster Early Day Motion) with some MEP colleagues pressing the Commission to amend a 2005 regulation so as to make them subject to export controls. This legal victory doesn't mean we campaigners can rest on our laurels since we also need a 'catch-all' clause so that if the creative executioners find another drug they can (mis-)use in addition to the 8 controlled ones, the controls can quickly be extended. You can see some of the other articles and press releases I wrote on the issue here, here and here.
Liberals alone fighting for LGBT rights
I was disappointed that last week, MEPs from the European Socialist group, to which Labour MEPs belong, failed to back a key paragraph LGBT equality in a report on EU freedom of movement rights. This assisted the right-wing parties to defeat it, see here. The paragraph demanded that when moving to live in another country, gay or lesbian same-sex couples who are married or have a civil partnership get their full legal rights as a couple guaranteed, e.g. in tax and inheritance. The LGBT community has been badly let down by Socialist and Labour MEPs going AWOL. In contrast the ALDE Liberal group was fully present and united in ending discriminatory non-recognition of same sex legal partnerships. We are the only major political force in Europe which offers unwavering guarantees of equality to Europe's LGBT citizens.
Sikh turbans and religious freedom
We are very used to seeing our Sikh compatriots in turbans and I have worked to ensure that they do not have trouble at airport security. France though is not so comfortable with diversity. It was condemned by the UN’s human rights body for refusing to renew a residence permit without a ‘bareheaded’ ID photo. I have tried to ask the European Commission what it will do ‘to encourage Member States to apply rules on the issuance of residence permits and other ID documents such that Sikhs enjoy freedom of religious expression through being able to wear their turbans in the photos?’ But I have been told by the powers-that-be in the European Parliament that I cannot table this question as it exceeds the competence and sphere of responsibility of the European Union’!
The photo shows me campaigning with LibDem candidate Roger Crouch in the Feltham & Heston parliamentary byelection.
Chinese Liberal Democrats dinner
GLA candidate Merlene Emerson pulled off an impressive dinner for the Chinese LibDems, attended by many leading LibDems such as Lords Dholakia, Renard and Clement-Jones. It was great to talk to people from London’s Chinese community as well as to see a splendid Lion Dance to usher in the auspicious Year of the Dragon.
Islington Refugee centre
I had the pleasure of visiting the Islington refugee centre to see the work they do on language and other courses and providing a place for people to meet others and integrate into the community. Hopefully the skills they acquire will help them not only build confidence but also get work.
Sri Lanka: accountability for crimes
There were crimes against civilians on both the government and Tamil Tiger side in the civil war which ended a few years ago. But it is the government which bears the chief responsibility to bring accountability, as I told a gathering in Trafalgar Square (pictured). The European Parliament recently voted a resolution, in advance of the current session of the UN’s human right body, which included a call for the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry into all crimes committed in the civil war, see here.
Questioning the Commission
As a member of the European Parliament, scrutinising the work and decisions of the European Commission is an important part of the job. That is why I table many questions to the Commission about a range of subjects (mostly admissible!) and you can keep up to date with the questions I ask here. One concern I raised recently is the potential increase in human trafficking as a result of the Olympics: while trafficking for sexual exploitation is on the agenda, trafficking for labour in the construction and hospitality trades has not been given much thought. I have also raised the issue of naked bodyscanners, believing that the UK government’s refusal to allow travellers to opt out from the machine in favour of a pat down contravenes new EU rules supposed to uphold privacy. Then as co-chair of the European Union Working Group on Diabetes (EUDWG) I fight for a comprehensive strategy, see here, to address the alarming rise in diabetes in Europe - 30 million people predicted to have the disease by 2030 – and expect this to be debated next week in Strasbourg.
On the campaign trail
I am trying to do as much work as possible ahead of the May elections with Team London 2012!
Making fares fairer and more practical is one of the key planks of our City Hall campaign. Here I am pictured with GLA list candidates Bridget Fox and Marisha Ray and North East London GLA candidate Farooq Qureshi determined to highlight this issue.
I joined our Mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, our GLA leader Caroline Pidgeon and GLA South West candidate Munira Wilson at a successful day in Richmond on the crime campaign day, speaking to lots of residents about how policing should be improved in their area.
I joined MP Tom Brake and list candidate Shas Sheehan for a highly successful London region action day in Carshalton, there were dozens of eager LibDem campaigners delivering an upbeat message on local doorsteps.
I try to get to as many local elections as possible. I helped out in Sutton’s Worcester Park byelection, the fantastic result of which shows what can be achieved even in difficult electoral times. I was in to Brent to campaign with Sarah Teather, local GLA candidate Charlotte Henry and candidate Alison Hopkins for the forthcoming Dollis Hill byelection.
Alison and her team are working flat out to hold the seat, our only gain from Labour in London in 2010, but they need your help! If you can help contact Alison on 0791 771 7797 or her husband Dave on 0208 452 1952.
Finally, do see here on my website for new and updated Focus articles for use in local literature. Contact Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org or Simon at email@example.com if you need more information.