Sarah's bulletin: 11th May
We can take pride in Team London’s campaign, led by Brian Paddick and Caroline Pidgeon, with a first-class team of Assembly candidates and on the strength of an excellent manifesto. Warm congratulations to Caroline and Stephen Knight on their successful election to the London Assembly, commiserations to all unsuccessful candidates and fervent thanks to them and to all our activists who worked their socks off.
Of course it is disappointing that, thanks to national factors as well as the ‘Ken & Boris show’, we did not do as well as was deserved by the amount of hard work and performance of our candidates. Fighting elections mid-term in government is a far harder task than fighting in opposition, especially with the tough economic backdrop. Throughout the country we lost many hardworking and dedicated councillors, though it’s encouraging to note that in places where we have sitting MPs such as Eastleigh, Colchester and Southport we improved our vote and made gains. Let’s also not forget that the nationwide 16% score was far better than our opinion polls – and double what our German allies the FDP achieved in last week’s regional election and that has them jumping with joy!
Now we need to think about the challenge of 2014 and 2015. In this article on Liberal Democrat Voice, former Assembly Member Mike Tuffrey draws conclusions on the lessons we can learn from the London results. He rightly stresses the need to develop the LibDem brand and that we need to focus on issues that will make people’s lives more affordable and better, such as housing, jobs and growth.
In fact our achievements in government on bread and butter issues are indeed considerable and Nick Clegg has stressed in this article that in the next two years the focus will again be on showing that the Coalition Government is supporting ordinary people and their aspirations as well as on political reform.
The Queen’s Speech contained some great wins for the Lib Dems. As the political editor of the Guardian points out in this article it shows we are punching above our weight in Government. House of Lords reform is rightly included, and I was especially pleased about the planned Defamation Bill, which will mean that the threat of libel proceedings cannot stifle free speech or intellectual debate.
Importantly, there are also plans for an extensive overhaul of the banking system to separate investment and high street banking and to allow shareholders to have binding votes over executive pay. It was announced this week that the pay of the CEOs at the top 100 companies went up by 11% last year while there was a 7% drop in share prices. Clearly action needs to be taken, and I am glad that this has been given high priority! Getting out of recession and growing the economy will not happen without a stable and secure banking system.
As readers know, I have raised concerns about two proposals that featured in the speech: the Communications Bill, which could see storage of online communications including on social media, and the Justice and Security Bill, which would mean secrecy through ‘Closed Material Procedures’ extended to civil proceedings and about which I remain deeply unconvinced. I am glad that there be a pre-legislative scrutiny panel for the Communications Bill and there will also be an assessment of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to see if safeguards around data protection need to be strengthened. I trust that Lib Dem MPs will rigorously ensure that protection of individual freedoms is given the utmost priority, as they must surely remain one of the deepest features of the LibDem brand.
On which note, we have indeed shown that restoration of individual liberties is the heart of what our party stands for. The Protection of Freedoms Act became law last week and this very important LibDem achievement will:
• stop councils snooping
• end the storage of DNA of innocent people
• reduce the bureaucracy of CRB checks
• end 28-day detention
• stop schools deciding on their own to take fingerprints of children
• Make stalking a criminal offence
• End wheel clamping on private land
• Delete historical convictions for men who have had consensual sex with another man who was over 16
Right to information
An EU Directive setting minimum standards regarding the information rights that suspects or accused persons are entitled to receive has been finally adopted. I helped to formulate this important directive within the civil liberties committee. My speech to Parliament on the issue can be read here. The Directive provides for all people to be provided promptly with a letter outlining their procedural rights including access to a lawyer, the right to be informed of the accusation and details about any entitlement to free legal advice.
EU roaming cap lowered again
Fighting the great roaming rip-off has been a major cause championed by MEPs over the last five years. This week we took the latest step, approving a deal that will mean that for the first time there will be a price cap on the cost of downloading data and internet on mobile phones when abroad. Prices of calls and texts have gradually come down since the regulation was first passed in 2007. This agreement will mean that from 1st July this year outgoing calls will cost (before VAT) 24p per minute and will go down to 16p by 2014. The capped price on data downloads will be 59 pence per MB, falling to 18 pence by 2014. This is one-fifth of the price charged by one UK operator. See more in my press release here.
Europe needs to tighten its belt – national governments please listen!
I’ve written before about moves led by LibDems to curtail expenditure in the European Parliament, like freezing staff numbers and our own MEP allowances. But we must get more than rhetoric and hypocrisy from the Member States:
a) Time for action on one seat
MEPs yet again this week voted overwhelmingly in favour of having just one parliamentary seat in Brussels and ending the Strasbourg travelling circus; see my press release here. Member States want a reduction in the EU budget, yet try to obstruct moves by the Parliament to merge two Strasbourg sessions into one! It is incredibly hypocritical, considering that leaving Strasbourg would save around £145 million a year.
b) More accountability needed for EU spending
Every year Parliament has to vote on the ‘discharge’ of a previous year’s EU accounts, and this week we voted on the 2010 accounts. My group, ALDE, did not sign off on the accounts because of our concerns over the recurrent negative Court of Auditors reports. For six years we have pushed the Commission to insist on Member States producing annual spending reports as the 27 EU national governments spend 80% of the EU budget. Thanks to our pressure, the Commission has finally agreed to this; see my press release here
Fisheries policy reform
Last week MEPs on the Environment committee endorsed the European Commission’s proposals on reforming EU fisheries policy. My colleague Chris Davies has been incredibly active on this topic. Fishing stocks are in decline and so there has to be a more sustainable policy. The plans agreed include assessing capacity of fishing fleets so there are not too many boats chasing too few fish and a requirement that all fish must be landed, so ending the wasteful process of throwing dead fish back into the sea. The tough challenge will be to get the EP Fisheries committee and the even more short-sighted fisheries ministers of the 27 to focus on the long-term preservation of the fishing industry.
Obama and gay marriage
I am very glad to see that President Obama has become the first American President to endorse gay marriage; see more here. As we have seen in the UK, the opening of the consultation into gay marriage has led to opposition from politicians and church leaders. It shows that the path to equality will be far from smooth. If you haven’t already, please sign the Coalition For Equal Marriage petition here: http://www.c4em.org.uk/
My colleague Catherine Bearder and I wrote to the Cameroon President following the appalling massacre of up to 600 elephants by foreign poachers in the Bouba N’djida National Park. There is more that the EU can do to assist developing countries with wildlife protection and we raised the issue with Development Commissioner Piebalgs. In a letter, he told us that the EU will help Cameroon and the other countries in the region to develop well trained and equipped guards so that poachers can be apprehended.
Companies not required to cut leakage rates, despite drought
You could be forgiven for forgetting that the South is in the worst drought for 25 years, given the wet few weeks we have endured! However, we are and despite this, water companies are not under any obligation to reduce leakages before 2015. More can be read in this article. 3.4bn litres of water leak from the system everyday, which is almost a quarter of the entire supply!
Lib Dem action on post offices
In the three months since Norman Lamb took over from Ed Davey as Minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs he has been busy trying to get the Post Office and Royal Mail back on track and is doing so with a bit of European help too!
It was announced at the end of March that the European Commission has approved state aid for Royal Mail. This will help protect the pensions of all Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd staff – good news for postmen and women and a step that is supported by the Communication Workers Union.
Norman has also been working with the Local Government Association to investigate how councils can work with their local post offices to help cut costs for councils, bring more customers in to the post office, and make life more convenient for local residents. This is already happening in 25 local authorities.
I also believe that modernisation is key and top of the list should be extending opening hours. More flexibility in the evenings and at weekends would ensure more people use the facilities on offer!
Eurovision song contest and human rights in Azerbaijan
This article about treatment of journalists in Azerbaijan makes disturbing reading ahead of the Eurovision song contest. The European Parliament passed a resolution last month calling on the Azeri Government to stop repression of human rights activists, see here. Activists have used the contest to draw attention to police clampdowns on free speech and forcible removal of people from their homes to make way for new developments in the capital, Baku.
The European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) have launched a campaign called 'Douze points for freedom’, demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all those currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan on politically motivated charges. You can read more about and sign the petition here: http://www.douzepointsforfreedom.eu/
What dedication from paralysed London marathon participant, Claire Lomas. Sixteen days after starting, she finally reached the finishing line on Tuesday. More can be read here. The organisers decided she wasn’t entitled to a medal because she didn’t complete the race on the day, which is very mean in my view. She thoroughly deserves a medal for this achievement and for the money she raised for charity Spinal Research.