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Sarah's bulletin:10th February

February 10, 2012 11:32 AM

Dear friends,

Abu Qatada and the European Court of Human Rights

Theresa May is of course fully entitled to appeal to the 'Grand Chamber' of the European Court of Human Rights against the judgment of a division of the court that Abu Qatada cannot be deported to Jordan because of fears that evidence obtained through torture might be used in a trial. If she can convince the Court that there is a real guarantee that would not happen and that he would have a truly fair trial, then I would be as delighted as anyone to see the back of this man.

However, the necessary trust for such an assurance would however be very difficult to build, not least as the UK was a party to the US-led outsourcing of torture to Jordan among others over the last decade. The UK, the United States and other European countries should have been doing everything in our power to eliminate torture worldwide but unfortunately we did the opposite through 'extraordinary rendition' in secret prisons. Chickens come home to roost when it means that the persistence of torture in a country prevent us deporting someone there.

But whether or not the UK appeals last week's ECtHR ruling, we should not rubbish it. It is legitimate on human rights grounds and the UK should be seen to be upholding the principle of the right to a fair trial. The case should also teach the UK several lessons, notably the need for revision of the law in use of intercept and other intelligence evidence in UK courts so as to allow prosecutions here. The continued and undetained presence of Abu Qatada on UK territory is a source of huge frustration, but he must be dealt with in accordance with the rule of law. You can see the press release I wrote on the issue here.

As I said last year when the UK took over the 6-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the Strasbourg-based body which hosts the European Court of Human Rights, I fully share the government's top priority of reform of the Court to make it more streamlined and efficient, long championed by LibDems. However we should reinvigorate not undermine the European Human Rights Court and the Convention which was drafted - largely by British lawyers - to guarantee freedom and peace after fascism and war. The notion spread by Europhobes and rightwingers that European human rights law only protects terrorists, rapists and illegal immigrants is a gross fallacy. In applying the Convention, the court has done much to safeguard the liberties of British citizens such as over storage of DNA, stop & search and ending discrimination against widowers in benefits.

David Cameron is advancing a thesis whereby Strasbourg leaves a country like Britain alone, free to make political decisions like a blanket ban on prisoners voting, while concentrating on the 'other' countries, the real human rights abusers. The most obvious flaws in this reasoning are a) that unless there is uniform enforcement, no country will feel pressed to obey the Court b) if the 'best' countries don't set an example of respect for the court, who will? and c) we are not perfect anyway. All the court is asking in the prisoner votes case is that the absolute ban on votes for prisoners be replaced by a mechanism whereby each prisoner's case would be considered by a judge on its merits and that would be perfectly straightforward if it was not for the febrile atmosphere at Westminster.

Thanks to the Liberal Democrats, the coalition agreement stated that a commission would be established to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights 'that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights'. This turns out to be even more crucial than it seemed at the time. It is imperative that the Convention remain enshrined in British law through any Human Rights Act +.

Chagos Islands should be recognised as World Heritage site

I have long been a firm supporter of the rights of the Chagossian people to return to their home following their shabby eviction by the British government in the late 1960s to hand Diego Garcia over to the Americans as a military base (and allegedly latterly a rendition secret prison). You can see more information here as well as a letter I co-signed in 2007 to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose government shamefully ignored UK court rulings. The matter is now pending in the European Court of Human Rights and it would be good if the present government would gracefully concede the case, especially as many Tories and LibDems spoke up before the election in favour of resettlement.

While waiting for that, the All Party Parliamentary group on Chagos at Westminster - which I belong to - has written to William Hague asking that he support the islands being designated a UNCESCO World Heritage site because of its rich natural environment. The Foreign Office has always made it clear that it treats the islands as a world heritage site, so I hope it is able to work with Chagos and Mauritius to submit a successful bid as well as to allow the Chagossians home to the islands. They would be the very best stewards of it rich marine environment.

Tobin Tax must be global

I read with interest this article about the European Commission undertaking a revised impact assessment on its proposed EU Financial Transaction Tax because 'original projections were misused'. Well, given that the initial proposal 6 months ago suggested that such a tax could reduce future GDP by 1.76%, it's hardly a surprise that many did not regard it as an attractive prospect! I hope we are not now going to get just spin. The Commission of course also rightly pointed out that a Tobin tax imposed only in the EU risks having companies relocating - with the jobs concerned - to Asia or America to escape the tax. The line LibDems and the ALDE group are pursuing, led by my colleague and chair of the EP economic and financial affairs committee Sharon Bowles MEP, is that it can only be effective if implemented at a global level. I am all in favour of sensible ideas to raise money from speculative finance - which is why the coalition government's banking levy is a good idea - but any tax that could severely undermine European business recovery and growth is a non-starter. It is right that a UK government should veto an EU-only tax, though we should, also promote its exploration at a global level.

Modern vaccines for big killers

I was very pleased that last year the UK government pledged over £800 million funding for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI). Bill Gates has been doing excellent work on this issue, managing to get the 13 biggest drug companies to donate more medicines to the developing world and promote research to combat the 10 deadliest diseases, as described in this recent article here .The pharmaceutical industry does not always get a great press, but this is an excellent example of Corporate Social Responsibility; banking industry please take note.

Now in the news is the Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative and MEPs last year called for greater EU support of the TBVI, an independent not-for-profit organisation set up to support the development of new vaccines and treatments. One of the ways the EU can support this scheme is by guaranteeing access to funding from the European Investment Bank, which would give the scheme firmer and longer term financial commitment. Action is needed as more than 1.5 million people are killed each year by this disease and the existing BCG vaccine is old, with limited efficacy. I have written to Business Secretary Vince Cable asking that the government support the bid for funding for TBVI through the EIB. This development assistance is not only humanitarian but gives people a chance of building their lives and earning a living.

MEPs leading on human rights in Syria, Egypt and Russia

It is a disgrace that Russia and China vetoed the UN motion supporting the Arab League plan for a peaceful transition in Syria. Most recently many civilians have been killed in Homs by government attacks as you can see here. The leader of the ALDE group in the Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, is now calling for EU foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton to secure the immediate departure of all Syrian ambassadors within the EU as well as the establishment of safe havens on the Syrian border for civilians.

ALDE has also called for action in relation to curtailing of democratic freedoms in Russia itself. The Russian Duma Assembly elections held in December were branded as fraudulent by international watchdogs so we are calling for the European Parliament to freeze contacts with the Assembly until free elections are held. My LibDem colleague Edward Macmillan Scott has also highlighted and condemned the use of violence against civilians by Egypt's military government. You can see more information here and here.

Romanians in the UK

Last night I co-hosted a meeting of Romanian Liberal supporters living in the UK with my Romanian ALDE group colleague Ramon Manescu MEP. I have always voted to support EU-wide freedom of movement so I am sorry that the present government has prolonged until the end of 2013 restrictions on their (and Bulgarians') ability to work here, which Brits do not face anywhere in the EU. I do wonder if they end up having any useful effect, since they can lead to exploitation, students here legally unable to do work placements as well as bureaucratic hassles around work and residence permits. I can at least take up with ministers the counter-productive nature of a lot of this and I intend to do so.

112 could save lives!

Tomorrow marks 112 Day, aimed at raising awareness of the emergency pan- European number. This number will connect you to any emergency service and can be accessed in any EU country. You can see my press release here. Every year more than 150 million people travel in the EU, and knowing the 112 number when on business or holiday could mean the difference between life and death. While there are many varying emergency numbers this is the only one that can be used free of charge in all member countries.

Ed Davey pushing renewable power

After only a week in his new role as Secretary of State for energy and climate change, it is clear that Kingston MP Ed Davey is determined to carry on and develop Chris Huhne's desire for the UK to develop a strong and vibrant renewable energy industry. In a clear signal of his support for investment in this form of energy he chose his first official visit to open a new UK wind farm. You can read more on the story here. It is vitally important to be supporting new projects that will help to rebalance the economy and end reliance on the financial sector.

LibDem action on cycling

Following the launch last week by the Times of a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers cyclists face, I was very pleased that LibDem Transport Minister Norman Baker announced a £15 million investment in cycling, £8 million of which will go to cycling charity Sustrans to enhance cycle routes. The LibDems at regional, national and European level are all striving to make things better for cyclists and you can see my thoughts here.

Team London off to a great start!

Last but definitely not least, Wednesday saw the launch of the LibDem 'Team London' campaign for the Mayoral and London Assembly elections. Both Brian Paddick and Caroline Pidgeon gave confident and inspiring speeches and have real ideas that I can't wait to see in the manifesto. What is really great is the diversity in terms of age, gender, sexuality and cultural and religious background of our team of London Assembly candidates. Already the campaign has over 1000 volunteers and we managed to deliver over 625,000 leaflets to Londoners! Sign up to lend your arms, legs - and voices for canvassing - here: