Thursday, February 27, 2014

Business-like European Parliament

Frank Little writes:

There is a useful insight into the working of the EP by a young person on a work placement with Chris Davies MEP. You can read her account of one working week here on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Two items stood out for me:
 One of the highlights of my time in Parliament was the meeting that followed between Business Secretary Vince Cable and Liberal Democrat MEPs.  It really emphasised the importance of Britain’s membership of the European Union to our businesses.
Wednesday: Today members of ENVI met – well not all of them! Just a couple of rows in front of me was an empty seat assigned to ‘Paul Nuttall’, a UKIP MEP notorious for his absenteeism in the Parliament. That empty seat really struck me, as the other MEPs present dealt with current problems facing European citizens.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Liberal Democrat growth resumed

Mark Pack reveals the following figures from committee reports to the forthcoming Liberal Democrat spring conference:
  • Overall Lib Dem party membership rose by 950 in the 2013 calendar year, ending the year on 43,451.
  • The federal party budget was for a £2,000 surplus in 2013; it has come out at £480,000.
  • 38% of Westminster Parliamentary candidates selected in strategic (i.e. target) seats, excluding held seats, are female, compared to 27% of approved candidates overall being female. (Plus the situation in held seats where MPs are retiring is rather promising.)
This gives the lie to Labour jibes that our membership is falling, and contrasts with the parlous financial state in which the Labour party finds itself.

Vince Cable writes to party members about higher education

Today, Nick Clegg has laid out our record on higher education.
It’s a record that demonstrates that we are committed to helping everyone to get on in life, whether that’s through university, apprenticeships, or work. And it’s a record that shows that the difficult decisions we made back in 2010 are having a positive effect on those students we most need to encourage into university.
I know that tuition fees have been hard to discuss on the doorstep. We have expressed regret that it was not possible to deliver in office a commitment made in opposition. But we have, in government, created a fairer system in which no one pays upfront fees, and payments operates like a form of graduate tax, payable in a progressive way linked to income. So let’s make clear what our record is:
This year, we have had the highest application rates to university ever and the highest number of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Over half a million students will be entitled to receive grants for living costs that they will never have to pay back.
Up to a quarter of the lowest paid graduates will end up paying back less than they would have under the previous system.
Nearly 200,000 students studying their first degree part time won’t have any up-front fees to pay, as they did under Labour.
Most importantly, today our most disadvantaged teenagers are 70% more likely to go to university than they were 10 years ago.
This doesn’t wipe the slate clean. But voters need to know the facts. Their children and grandchildren, no matter who they are, are more likely to attend university because of Liberal Democrats in government.
And the savings we have made have enabled us to protect adult education, and to plough more resources into apprenticeships for many of the 60% who do not go to universities.
Vince Cable
Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills

Friday, February 21, 2014

Another UKIPper asleep on the job

FactCheckEU, which provides factual information about the European Union even if it occasionally hurts the case for membership, investigated the case of retiring UKIP MEP Trevor Coleman. He had stated that the European Parliament “has no power, it can't make or change legislation”. After refuting this assertion, FactCheckEU's report concludes:

According to Votewatch, Mr Colman has only taken part in half of all votes during his five years in office (ranked 751st out of 766) and has admitted that one of the reasons he attends the sessions in Strasbourg and Brussels is to secure the allowances. He has only tabled two parliamentary questions and made 17 speeches in plenary since 2009. His limited involvement in the EP might explain why he knows so little about how legislation is made in the European Union. A well-deserved "Insane whopper"!

(There is a photo of UKIP MEPs earning their allowances on the Huffington Post.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Uncertainty following Swiss immigration referendum

Last weekend, the Swiss voted in a referendum to impose strict migration levels. The campaign was rough. The Swiss government, a clear majority of the parliament and the business community campaigned against this initiative, given the negative impact it may have on the attractiveness of Switzerland as a business location. Only one major party, the nationalist Swiss People’s Party was officially in favour of the quotas. They exploited concerns among the people such as housing shortage, low-wage dumping or congestion of the infrastructure.

The initiative was approved by just 50.3% of the votes and was passed by a majority of cantons, though there was a clear gap between cities and the countryside. In metropolitan areas where a lot of immigrants live and work, the initiative was defeated. But in rural areas, there is a significantly smaller number of foreigners, the acceptance of the initiative was much higher. There was also a gap between the often more open minded French speaking part and the rest of Switzerland.

Those who voted 'yes' in the referendum may not have understood the potential consequences of voting as they did, as they aren't direct beneficiaries of free trade and free movement of people, but they may not like what happens next much.

First, there is legal uncertainty. Nobody knows how the relations with the European Union will evolve and when companies will be able to engage in long term business planning. Even if all persons without a Swiss passport who currently live and work in Switzerland are not directly affected until their visas expire, Switzerland will face problems attracting talent from all over Europe and the world. It is also not clear how Switzerland will be able to participate in the single market. The image of the country as an open community with a successful economy will suffer for a long time.

Second, the adoption of this initiative creates a new bureaucratic burden for companies: while the principle of free movement of people stipulates that everybody within the European Union is entitled to work in any EU country without discrimination (including Switzerland as a non-EU Member State), the referendum initiative demands a prioritization for domestic persons. These two principles cannot be combined and will lead to difficult negotiations with the EU without any prospect of solution. In the not so distant future Swiss companies will be obliged to prove that there is no Swiss employee with similar qualifications for the job before hiring a non-Swiss worker.

Third, the "Bilateral-one-package" negotiated between Switzerland and the EU (dating from 1999 and coming into force in 2002) is at stake. There are further negotiations over, among other things, energy, the financial market, agriculture, food and participation in EU programmes on research, education & culture. The EU has already suspended the negotiations of a framework agreement to resolve the “institutional questions” between Switzerland and the EU (implementation of EU legislation, interpretation, supervision, dispute settlement) and those of the electricity agreement.

What the Commission and the Council of Ministers do next will be keenly watched by UKIP and Eurosceptic Conservatives alike. The latter see the future of the UK as outside the European Union, but with bilateral agreements, like those of Norway and Switzerland, but with immigration controls such as those which Switzerland has just voted in favour of.

Jonathan Fryer
Mark Valladeres

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Royal College of Nursing backs law for minimum nursing

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams has called for minimum nursing staff levels to be enforced by law.

The Western Mail reports that "while Wales has 10.5 patients per nurse, Scotland has 8.8, England 8.5 and Northern Ireland 7.2. Wales’ proportion of nurses as a percentage of staff also trails behind, with 56% compared to England’s 59%, Scotland’s 60% and Northern Ireland’s 66%. The proposed legislation would require the government to set a minimum staffing level for nurses, similar to laws introduced in California and in two Australian states - which Ms Williams said had reduced mortality levels.

"The levels would be set by an independent body and would take into account the circumstances of each Health Board or hospital area. Ms Williams said: 'I believe we are capable of meeting the levels. We do have enough nurses in the workforce but many are leaving the [National Health] Service because of issues of pressure, professional challenge and cannot deliver the care they need to and patients require.'

"Peter Meredith-Smith, acting director of RCN Wales said: 'The Royal College of Nursing in Wales is delighted that Kirsty Williams’ proposal for legislation on minimum nurse staffing levels in Welsh hospitals has been selected for debate at the National Assembly for Wales. The RCN has long called for the Welsh Government to set mandatory nurse staffing levels in order to ensure that patients receive the highest possible standards of care in the Welsh Health Service.'”

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Deputy Prime Minister Clegg declares war on drugs 'unwinnable'

UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has declared the war against drugs “unwinnable”, after talks with President Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia.

Mr Clegg has long argued that the UK’s existing approach to illicit drugs is not working. As part of a record breaking trade visit to Latin America, the Liberal Democrat leader said “If you are anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform”, adding that, despite attempts by his Conservative coalition partners to block further investigation into an improved policy, the UK’s liberals would publish a report on an alternative strategy this year. The review will be completed by Liberal Democrat Home Office Minister, Norman Baker MP.

The result of Nick Clegg’s visit reinforces many of the points raised during Liberal International’s 191st Executive Committee meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, the theme of which was ‘Fighting Organised Crime’ and featured the panel discussion - ‘New Initiatives in the War on Drugs’. The Deputy Prime Minister added that his party would use its time in government to halt the ”conspiracy of silence” surrounding failed drug policies.

The liberal leader is the most senior British government minister to visit Colombia since 1992 and his visit coincides with the Santos government’s lifting of visa restrictions, meaning citizens living in the Schengen area countries of the EU will be able to travel to Colombia without registering for a visa. In a further signal of strengthened business relations between the UK and Colombia, after five years of talks, a deal has been struck that will see the first direct flights between the UK and Colombia for a decade.

[Thanks to Liberal International for this]

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Market abuse rules for EU finally agreed

Sharon Bowles, Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England and Chair of the European Parliament's Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, reports agreement between the Council and the European Parliament on the EU's Market Abuse Directive. This legislation, which will impose criminal sanctions on insider dealing and market manipulation, was approved by an overwhelming majority of MEPs in Strasbourg today.

Ms Bowles has consistently called for the revision of market abuse legislation to have a wider scope, encompassing transparency, clarity and harmonisation in order to act as a strong deterrent.

She commented from Strasbourg: "The 2008 financial crisis, the rigging of LIBOR and EURIBOR, and recent insider trading scandals have proven the necessity for tighter rules on market abuse.

"Evidence and experience suggest that a culture change may not come directly from within the financial sector any time soon and we hope that this legislation proves to be a significant step in achieving such change.

"The new market abuse legislation agreed today means that Member States must now ensure that not only insider dealing - unlawful disclosure of inside information and market manipulation - but also recommending or inducing another person to engage in such an act, are punishable as criminal offences.

"Although much has been achieved today there is always room for improvement. Council should strive, in a future review of this legislation, to further strengthen the minimum standards for criminal sanctions; enable Member States to apply higher administrative fines; and make the full publication of these sanctions an obligation, areas Parliament was more than ready to address during these negotiations.

"Furthermore, this legislation should be adapted on an on-going basis to account for new trading behaviours and to broaden the concept of abuse to include gross asymmetry of knowledge."