Tuesday, 30 March 2010


I have started canvassing for the general election and have been joined by Sarah, my assistant in the European Parliament, who is French and has taken a few days holiday to experience the British political culture. I introduced her to the art of election canvassing and she proved to be a natural.

We were in a Lib Dem held seat and the MP took Sarah away from the main road down a short cul-de-sac.

They returned to the canvassing team and the MP gave the details to the person holding the board: "First house, Lib Dem and will take a poster. Second house, I think the gentleman had just soiled himself. Election discussions were not appropriate."

"I went to the third house," said Sarah. "The man there was stoned out of his mind. The smell of weed just poured out of the door. He said he used to vote Lib Dem but can't remember when."

I think the BBC 10 o'clock news should tell us what it is like in the real world of politics.

Thursday, 25 March 2010


Today I have cast my vote in the European Parliament on an issue of great principle, and helped to bring about a decisive victory.

The right of people to buy bendy bananas, crooked carrots and curvy cucumbers has been maintained.

And the Spanish – who grow boringly straight products in their acres of glasshouses – have been dished. Their attempt to reintroduce the old ‘community marketing rules’ was rejected by a large majority.

It is shameful to discard food that is healthy but misshapen. People should be able to make up their own minds about whether to buy such products.

The pity is that the result of the vote won’t make much difference to anyone. I’m quite sure that supermarkets respond to consumer demand by telling farmers only to supply them with good looking products.

People say they want choice, but how many shoppers would make a deliberate choice to buy fruit and veg that they think looks strange?

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Parliament's budget is getting its annual consideration, so this is the time to consider reforms. A range of proposals have been put to the vote at the Budgetary Control Committee.

REJECTED - attempts to ensure that our procurement policies are transparent, competitive and free from the taint of corruption.

REJECTED - attempts to prevent the will of the parliament not to use taxpayers' money to top up the deficit in the MEPs' pension fund being frustrated by our own governing body.

REJECTED - a bid (from me) to ensure that any MEP has the right to view reports by our internal auditor.

REJECTED - a bid (also by me) to ensure that MEPs need never lose out financially if they regularly buy non-transferable economy air tickets instead of business class ones.

An alliance between the right of centre (EPP) and the left of centre groups ripped the guts out of the reform proposals.

Now the parties who want reform must table some key amendments on core issues of principle. For the votes in parliament we need to rally our side to defeat the forces of darkness.


Being leader of the Liberal Democrats was not his finest hour.

Ming Campbell had been a superb shadow foreign secretary, so often demonstrating a degree of radicalism and commitment to the best principles of liberalism that belied his establishment appearance.

Now his appearances on Newsnight suggest that he has regained his former status. And he is still as true as ever to radical liberalism. Speaking good sense. Just great.

It must be tough on Ed Davey, our current shadow foreign secretary, and unfair, but Ming is back as a great asset to the party.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010


The government is asking the EU to relax the anti-pollution requirements it imposes on coal power stations. From the end of 2015 it is said that a number will close because it won't be economic to install the anti-NOx equipment.

"We need to keep the lights on," says the Government. "We need to allow these polluting plants to operate for up to 8 years longer at peak times, especially when the wind isn't blowing." It has persuaded the EU Council of Ministers to back a UK opt-out.

I've gone along with this argument. Maybe it's better, I have said, to keep old power stations for a few years longer than replace them with new ones before they can be equipped with carbon capture tecnology.

But the environmentalists say "you're wrong." And so do the operators of Drax, the biggest coal power station in Britain and Europe.

I think the government and I have been a sucker to lobbying by EoN and RWE. They have invested in their plants in Germany to ensure they comply with the anti-pollution laws but they are trying to get out of doing the same work here - even though 50,000 people a year are said to die prematurely from air pollution that includes nitrogen oxide from power plants.

The current low carbon price is bad news because it discourages investment in new low carbon technologies, but it's good news for operators of coal power stations. They are making lots of money from capital equipment which they claim is time-expired.

My German colleague, Holger Krahmer, is taking the Industrial Emissions Directive through the Parliament, and he is opposing the UK opt out.

I'm reversing my position and joining him. If RWE and EoN want to make money, then let them clean up the polluting power stations.

Saturday, 20 March 2010


How can so many governments be so short-sighted?

Over the past few months a campaign has gathered pace in Brussels to persuade the EU collectively to back calls for an international trade ban on bluefin tuna.

In case anyone doesn't know this is the most valuable fish in the world. It's prized as the key to a good sushi, with a single fish exchanging for tens of thousands of euros.

And because it's so valuable it's been exploited to....well, to death. The weak management controls on the Mediterranean fishery have been largely ignored, with even the mafia getting involved in the lucrative slaughter. Stocks are now down to less than 8 per cent of the levels of 30 years ago.

After much debate the EU went to the conference on trade in endangered species with a unified position of opposition. Fat lot of good it did. A coalition of countries led by Japan insisted that trade should continue.

How stupid, how short-sighted, how ludicrous is this? The fish is on the verge of becoming extinct but Japan and it's friends don't give a toss. There will be no long term supplies and no jobs for fishermen unless we stop and let them breed, but so long as a few can continue to make money for a while longer they press ahead and hang the consequences.

And thus mankind destroyed its world.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Writing a short note of thanks I pause, a doubt crossing my mind. "Ulrike IS a female name, isn't it?" I ask two (female) assistants. They THINK it is but aren't 100 per cent sure.

So I do a search on the internet, and am quickly assured that 'Ulrike' is 45,616 times more likely to be the name of a female than of a man.

Sometimes the web does remind you just how clever it is.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

A conservative Liberal

It is a good line: “From being a liberal Conservative I become a conservative Liberal.”

Euro-MP Edward Mcmillan-Scott has joined the Liberal Democrats. I like Edward (sound on Palestine) but his words are I think very accurate indeed. I think of him as a Heathite Conservative rather than as an instinctive Liberal.

Political parties can often best be judged not by the more temperate views of their leaders but by the opinions of those on the edges. I feel comfortable with the Liberal Democrat ‘grassroots’ but could not stand being amongst their opposite numbers in the Conservative ranks. That McMillan-Scott has ended up in our ranks is a reflection of how uncomfortable a place the Conservative Party now must be for pro-European Tories of liberal inclination.

I shall have to have formal words with Edward in Brussels. As whip to the European parliamentary party my first job will be to make sure that the information on his website and in the register of interests meets our requirements regarding openness and transparency in matters of finance and expenses.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


Next time you get asked, "what has the EU ever done for us?" here is one positive response. It's given you the right to take your cats, dogs and ferrets on holiday.

Amazingly, that is exactly what the British want to do; 60% of all the pets travelling under the EU's Pets' Passport scheme are British! Maybe the numbers are swelled by all those ex-pats with houses in Spain.

In the European Parliament we have just been reviewing and updating the scheme. It's been a great success. Onerous quarantine arrangements that were miserable for pets and owners have been cast aside so long as the animal has a 'passport' (probably an embedded microchip) that proves it has been vaccinated against rabies.

Meanwhile the incidence of rabies across Europe has continued to fall from 2,679 recorded cases in animals in 1990 to just 251 in 2008, with NONE attributable to animals with passports.

To add to the good news the EU scheme is a development of one first introduced in the UK. Our 'Pet's Travel Scheme' started up on 28 February 2000, with the first animal to be issued with a passport being a dog called Frodo Baggins. Some 660,000 pet 'journeys' have been made since then.

I'm disappointed to learn that there aren't more ferrets on the move. Ferret fanciers came to me a few years ago to press their case and we won, although it was problematic. The trouble is that ferrets can be vaccinated against rabies but there is no test to prove that the vaccination has worked. Still, there had been no recorded cases of rabies in domestic ferrets so they got the benefit of the doubt.

There is still a prohibition on the movement of pets to some countries. Portugal, for example, classifies ferrets as 'vermin.'

Still, it could be worse. You wouldn't want to take your cat or dog to China, would you? Not unless you were hungry that is.

Saturday, 6 March 2010


It's 9pm on a Friday evening and the telephone rings. Carol, my wife, answers it. "Is this the Liberal Democrats nationally or locally?" I hear her say in response to the first words of the caller.

She goes quiet, listening apparently to a young woman giving a not-very-good series of apologies and pleas that not all politicians should be judged by the impression created by the expenses scandal. It must be hard to get money out of the supporters of any party at present, especially if your opening gambit is so downbeat. But the caller is clearly gearing up to ask the question....

"Tell her I gave £5,500 towards target seats in the North West only this morning," I say, speaking over Carol's shoulder. It's true, I did. I'm paid more to be a Liberal Democrat representative than anyone else in the region so I like to give something back. It's all on public record.

"My husband says he gave £5,500 this morning to four target seats in the North West," says my wife. There's a pause, and then Carol puts down the phone. "She hung up," she said. "I don't think she believed me."

Well there's gratitude for you. The Liberal Democrats call looking for money, and my news should make their day. Instead they think I'm taking the piss!

Thursday, 4 March 2010


We debate the Goldstone report on Israel's assault against Gaza in my European Liberal Democrat Group.

A proposal from me that we should formally welcome the call by EU foreign ministers for the immediate lifting of the continuing siege of Gaza is accepted. But my German colleagues are adamant that we should not include a reference to the fact that Israel has ignored the call and we should now consider what action to take.

So it is alright to express words but not alright to try and give those words meaning, or to do anything that might inconvenience Israel? It seems so. German proxy votes are marshalled to defeat me.

I bite my tongue. Words like "military occupation," "collective punishment," or "blood guilt," may be too close to home.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


UKIP MEP Nigel Farage has been docked some allowances, 'fined' £2,700, for the attack he launched against Herman van Rompuy in the European Parliament last week. He described the President of the European Council as having the appearance of a "low grade bank clerk" and claimed that his nation, Belgium, was "pretty much a non-country."

Farage's rudeness diminished himself. He portrayed the people of the United Kingdom as arrogant bullies. But should he have been penalised? What about freedom of speech in a parliamentary chamber?

For a moment I was tempted to support his 'rights' by sending him a compensatory cheque myself, but then I remembered that the House of Commons also sanctions members for inappropriate language or behaviour, and it has had centuries to develop its rules. My mind went back to personal experience, chairing meetings of Liverpool City Council's housing committee in 1982 with councillors from Labour's Militant Tendency disrupting business by droning on and on, daring me to curtail their 'freedom of speech.' Eventually I did, being reminded that a meeting chair has other responsibilities too.

Farage refused a request from the President (Speaker) of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, to withdraw his words. Buzek's subsequent words were written more in sorrow than in anger.

He said: "I attach the highest importance to freedom of speech. I fought for decades in my own country for such freedom. However, I do not believe that freedom of speech in the Parliament can extend to insulting other persons, especially guests speaking at our own invitation in the chamber. The very foundation of parliamentarianism and democracy is that freedom of expression should respect others."

Farage has milked the publicity for all it is worth and will regard his 'fine' as worth every penny. "It is an EU attack upon freedom of speech," he will claim, though he has not faced even a day's suspension.

Achieving a balance has been hard for Buzek. He was an activist for the Solidarity movement in Poland during the 1980s, campaigning against communist dictatorship. When he talks about free speech his words carry more genuine substance than all the rants and ravings of UKIP's former leader.

Monday, 1 March 2010


The Government has spent well in excess of £20 million on design fees but it is SO good to hear that Andrew Adonis has 'postponed' the building of £7.5 billion fleet of high speed trains.

For 'postponed' read 'cancelled.'' Good. Good. Good.

It's said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and what the Inter-city express procurement programme was doing would have landed us for decades with a double-humped camel.

Civil servants in the Department for Transport came up with the brilliant idea of a train that could use both diesel and electric propulsion - but would be a very expensive way of doing both very badly indeed.

Adonis really is the best Transport Secretary the country has ever had. He has faced down his civil servants and done what everyone in the railway industry knew needing doing, even though too many people were afraid to say so.

I just wish he was going to be in the job for longer.