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Sarah's bulletin:17th February

February 17, 2012 10:55 AM

Dear Friends,


Byelection successes and Sutton's Worcester Park

We are doing pretty well in byelections, and you can see in this article in the Independent, we made three gains in the past month alone, two of these landslide gains from the Conservatives.

London has just added to that success, with great hard work paying off as the LibDems sailed to victory in the Worcester Park byelection. Candidate Roger Roberts and the team secured a convincing hold against a strong Tory challenge, and there was even a 3% swing to us. It has been a great team effort from across the region. Here I am pictured with Roger, Sutton MP Paul Burstow and others from the local team. The message is of course that where we work, we win! On which note, I will be in Brent for the Dollis Hill byelection on Sunday as well as in Richmond on Saturday campaigning on crime.

Tax and budget fairness

Liberal Democrats in the coalition are putting fairness at the top of the agenda. LibDem ministers and MPs are working hard to ensure that the necessary austerity measures do not impact the most vulnerable in society. We are determined to raise the tax threshold to £10,000 in the lifetime of this Parliament, to take thousands of the lowest earners out of tax and put £700 back in each pocket. You can sign the petition to persuade George Osborne to fast track this LibDem policy here. Danny Alexander has also mentioned a longer-term ambition of £12,500 tax-free.

Danny has also been putting pressure on George Osborne for pension contributions to be stripped of the higher rate tax relief which benefits wealthy people and costs other taxpayers £7 billion; you can read more here. The mansion tax is also being examined anew. A motion on a progressive tax system will be debated at party conference next month. We believe that those who can afford to need to pay their fair share.

This insistence on budgetary fairness is in contrast to the situation in Greece where the less well off seem to be taking the brunt, such as a 20% cut in the minimum wage while the rich are salting their money away (often in London) in property, gold and diamonds. ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt wrote to Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the Eurozone which is deciding the Greek bailout terms, asking for focus to be put on structural reforms such as privatising banks and liberalising the market, rather than through cuts for the low-paid.

I read that one Swedish company has the motto 'making a decent profit decently' which seems a good one to me, as opposed to obscene and exploitative wealth alongside indecent poverty.

Religion in public and civic life

I am speaking at a conference fringe meeting on religion and freedom of speech so I was interested in the claim by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey that religion is being forced out of public life and faces 'gradual marginalisation'.
Baroness Warsi visiting the Vatican and in an article in The Telegraph also claimed a rise in 'militant secularisation' leading to 'culture wars.'

This nonsense follows 2 court judgements. The Appeal Court confirmed a lower court decision that Christian guesthouse owners could not under equalities law refuse a double room to a gay couple (see more here) and the High Court upheld a Bideford councillor's complaint that the Council was acting in violation of the Human Rights Act by having prayers as part of the council meeting agenda (see more in a Guardian editorial here.)

But no-one's freedom to practise their religion is being compromised, they are only being prevented from implementing discrimination and prejudice in its name. In a pluralistic society no single religion can and should be imposed in the public or civic sphere. The answer to Lord Carey and Baroness Warsi comes in the robust assertion by Appeal Court judge Lady Justice Rafferty in the guesthouse case about the difference between private and public manifestation of faith:

"I do not consider that the appellants face any difficulty in manifesting their religious beliefs. They are merely prohibited from so doing in the commercial context they have chosen."

Cross border crime needs European solutions

Last Saturday's Radio 4 'Week in Westminster' had a discussion about UK participation in EU laws on crime and justice. Tom Brake did an excellent job of extolling the importance of pan-European action to tackle major crime against Eurosceptic Tory Dominic Raab. You can listen to the broadcast here. Tom rightly pointed out that crimes like child pornography and sexual exploitation pay no regard to borders and European law and cross-border police cooperation mean that these issues can be more effectively tackled. I was glad that he pointed out that the EAW helped to prosecute one of the 7/7 bombers. The Tories are allowing their Europhobic obsession to ignore the need to keep British people safe.

Disgrace of Guantanamo

Tuesday marked ten years of detention without charge or trial in Guantanamo for London resident Shaker Aamer. The fact Guantanamo is still open is a stain on Obama's record. You can see my press release here and my letter to The Independent here.

Sun reporters looking to human rights law for protection!

There is a delicious irony to the story reported in The Independent about The Sun journalists who are looking for protection from the human rights legislation that they generally demonise, see here. Five journalists who were arrested for bribery of public officials are looking into taking legal action under the European Convention on Human Rights against their employer News International for passing source details to the Met Police. We look forward to a new leaf and the Sun ceasing to claim that the Human Rights Act is the last refuge of foreigners, terrorists and other scoundrels!

Spanish (in)justice

Baltasar Garzón is a an investigating magistrate famous in particular for pursuing Pinochet. While far from perfect - he was criticised in a Strasbourg court judgement for failing to probe claims of torture made by Catalan activists - the pursuit of him in Spanish courts now for alleged misdemeanours seems highly partisan. He is charged with illegally opening an investigation into the disappearance of 114,000 during the Spanish Civil War contrary to Spain's 1977 amnesty law. This has made him a hero of the left but unpopular with Spanish conservative circles. Garzon has so far been cleared of bribery charges but convicted of illegal wiretapping. The conviction and 11 year ban is likely to be the end of his career and while the actions of a judge are not above the law, the whole case throws up questions about the independence of the Spanish judiciary.

Syria and support for democratic Arabic countries

After ALDE group President Guy Verhofstadt wrote to Cathy Ashton calling for concrete action on Syria such as humanitarian intervention and support for human rights organisations to overcome the Russian and Chinese Security Council vetoes (see more here), she announced she would attend a meeting in Tunis on Feb 24th of a 'Friends of Syria' group. In Strasbourg this week we welcomed to the ALDE group 2 Syrian opposition activists including Homs survivor and CNN video-blogger Danny Abdul Dayem .Cameron and Sarkozy will also be discussing help for Syrian rebels this during the Anglo-French summit today, see more here.

The ALDE group is leading the field in offering practical and economic support to Arab countries which respect democracy and the rule of law. Our vote this week in favour of an EU-Morocco free trade agreement is an important example of this. You can see more information here.

Russian LGBT censorship laws condemned

MEPs passed a resolution calling for real not sham democracy for the Russian Presidential elections, It also included a denunciation of the discriminatory law passed by the Legislative Assembly of St Petersburg banning 'propaganda on sexual orientation', towards the LGBT community. This is similar to the infamous Tory section 28 UK law that we finally got rid of. Russia need to be reminded of their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. You can see more here.

Hungary

As I have written in recent bulletins, ALDE has become very concerned at the actions of Prime Minister Orban and his right wing party. A new Constitution and other laws passed last month compromise democratic, media and judicial freedoms. A resolution was endorsed by MEPs in Strasbourg this week - although the rightwing parties including Tories did not support it - condemning the new constitution for its partisan nature and infringement of civil liberties. You can see my press release here. The Commission has been too slow of the mark on this one while Hungary's fellow governments have largely stayed silent. This vote shows that the Parliament at least will not stand idly by while member state that undermines the founding EU principles of fundamental rights and democratic freedoms.

Tougher EU laws will mean that America can't look to EU for lethal drug supply


This article highlights the quandary faced by Texas given it is running out of the pentobarbital, a drug used for lethal injections, and will find it less easy to obtain it legitimately. As the article briefly mentions, this is in part due to the EU wide ban imposed on selling drugs for use in lethal injections to America. I was the leading MEP who campaigned with Amnesty and Reprieve for the loophole allowing this export to take place to be closed. In December the Commission agreed to include a list of drugs that cannot be exported, such as pentobarbital, and I am pressing for a 'catch-all' clause to prohibit the export of any drug which could be used in torture or executions You can read my press release here.

MEPs voting for thrift and single seat

My LibDem colleague George Lyon has been doing excellent work in his position as Vice President of the Parliament's budget committee to push for a freeze on MEP allowances until the end of 2014 and a cap on travel allowances, and this week MEPs voted for these measures. A full audit of EP spending is overdue, but this is a good start. We also again supported an end to the 'travelling circus' to Strasbourg in favour of one permanent seat, which would be in Brussels. You can see my press releases here and here . By the way, there is no truth in a Daily Express report that MEPs could get a 3% pay rise.

Commission report on lorry blind spots

The Commission is due to produce a report on the retrofitting of lorry 'blind spot' prevention aids such as sensors, as a direct result of the LibDem Fiona Hall's successful Written Declaration calling for a review of this and, in necessary, for tougher legislation to be implemented. I will keep you posted! Fiona has a fringe meeting at conference on this (though it clashes with mine above!)

Visiting students

I was pleased to help organise a visit to Strasbourg by students from London Metropolitan University. They came to learn more about the workings of Parliament and what I do as their MEP. They seemed to enjoy the visit, which was great!