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Sarah's bulletin: 24th February

February 24, 2012 11:07 AM

Dear friends,

LibDems focus on tax and fairness

If you didn't catch the Liberal Democrat political party broadcast on Wednesday you can watch it here. It focused on our campaign to have the £10,000 income tax threshold - which thanks to us is coalition policy - implemented at a faster rate. Do sign the petition to persuade George Osborne to fast-track this here.

Nick highlights in the broadcast the LibDem priority in government to make our economy and tax system fairer, including targeting wealthy tax avoiders, raising extra tax from banks and stopping disproportionate pension tax breaks for the very well-off. LibDems have made really good progress in helping people on modest incomes, with nearly 900,000 of the lowest earners lifted out of tax altogether in 2011 and a further 23m people having received a £200 tax cut. But we want to keep up the momentum. This excellent article by MP David Laws in the Guardian this week further outlines LibDem ideas about reforming the tax system so lower and middle income earners pay less tax and the top 1-5% of earners pay more.

Nick and our other ministers are also working to break down barriers to social mobility. The Pupil Premium in schools is an example of this, as is the £1bn Youth Contract which will create over 400,000 new work places for 18 to 24 year olds over 3 years. This week Nick announced that £126 million of this fund - £13 million of it in London - will be directed to firms and charities to provide jobs and training opportunities for unemployed teenagers.

I am disgusted at the campaign which seems to be led by members of the Socialist Workers Party to denigrate and destroy the work experience scheme for youngsters. As I learned this week from a business adviser, potential employers are even more concerned about young people lacking 'work-readiness' - eg the ability to turn up regularly on time - than they are about lack of skills. Of course any work experience schemes must be firmly voluntary (and any allegations of fraud in the different work placement scheme must be fully investigated), but a lot of people do end up with jobs through work experience. So the SWP, not for the first or last time, prefers to keep people disadvantaged than give them a step up.

London campaign update

Speaking of campaigning, there are only two full months left in the Mayoral and London Assembly race. So I am doing all I can to help our fantastic GLA team and Mayoral candidate, and had a busy week. Last Saturday I headed to Richmond to campaign with our South West London candidate Munira Wilson as part of the London LibDem crime campaign day, to survey people's opinion about how crime and policing can be improved. We had a well attended street stall and we were also joined by Brian Paddick and Caroline Pidgeon.

Then it was off to Brent… Brent LibDem councillor Alec Castle has sadly died so there is a byelection for his seat in Dollis Hill ward. I went canvassing with MP Sarah Teather, our GLA candidate for Brent and Harrow Charlotte Henry and locally very well-known byelection candidate Alison Hopkins

I was also delighted to speak at the Islington hustings at which local party members from Islington, Hackney and Waltham Forest selected Farooq Qureshi (pictured) as the North East London GLA candidate. As a Waltham Forest councillor and businessman he is well placed to represent the interests of the businesses and residents of the area, as well as having a particular link to the Pakistani-origin community

Then yesterday when giving a talk - on Europe and the rights of women and minorities - to the hardworking local LibDem team in Hammersmith and Fulham, I also took the opportunity to issue a campaign rallying call. This was apt as the audience included Merlene Emerson (second from left), our number 5 London Assembly list candidate and star of Chinese LibDems who organised a magnificent recent dinner covered on Chinese television including an interview with Merlene:

Tomorrow I will be joining Carshalton & Wallington MP Tom Brake and the London region for an action day in his area. Do come and join me; we will be a big team so we will be knocking on lots of doors and it will be fun! You can register here:

Tate & Lyle

Sugar! Is that really me on the right in the goggles? As regular readers know, I have been campaigning in support of Tate & Lyle to try and lift the discriminatory treatment they suffer through unfair and pricey EU controls on cane sugar imports. My attachment to the firm derives mainly from the fact that it employs directly or in its suppliers over 800 people through its plant in Silvertown, though I confess that memories of my mum's 'golden pudding' made with T&L golden syrup may play a part! I am furious that EU policy has meant the company has had to lose 30 staff, and you can see my letter on this in The Grocer magazine here.

Together with my colleague George Lyon who leads for us on agriculture and is kindly supporting us (since the amount I know about the CAP would fit on a pinhead!) I have written to the European Commissioner for Agriculture asking for a meeting with him. It is a crazy situation that a manufacturer otherwise in good health, which is putting into practice Europe's development policies by sourcing raw sugar from some of the world's poorest countries, should have to lose staff due to an unintended consequence of an EU policy which favours beet growers over cane imports. I don't much like fixing markets, but if the European Commission is going to fix them under the CAP it should at least fix them in a way that's fair to all.


The news from Syria gets worse and worse. The Assad regime is indiscriminately murdering its own people including women, children and the elderly. This week also saw the killing of 2 western journalists in a shelling attack in Homs. One of the victims was the fearless London-based Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin who dedicated her life to telling the stories of civilians caught up in the horrors of war. The Times has put the last piece Marie filed in front of the paywall and you can read it here a reminder of her great journalistic talent as well as the shocking situation in Homs.

I am pictured with Syrian activist, blogger and Homs survivor Danny Abdul Dayem, who came to meet our ALDE group in Strasbourg last week. ALDE has been calling for the EU's foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton to take a lead in developing a plan to stop the killing and deliver aid, including setting up a humanitarian corridor for Syrian refugees, see more here. At today's meeting of the Friends of Syria in Tunis, Western and Arab powers have called for an immediate ceasefire and will recognise the Syrian National Council as the legitimate opposition to Assad's regime. You can read more here.

Greek bailout

The finalising this week of the second Greek bailout gives no cause for celebration, though it does provide some relief. While it does mean that Greece has avoided immediate bankruptcy, the agreement is still only a temporary measure and does not solve the systemic causes of the debt crisis. The quid pro quo of the bailout of €130bn to reduce the country's debt is a further round of tax increases and wage and budget cuts. So even if the package is ratified by all Eurozone countries and the restructuring of private sector debt happens before the default deadline of March 20th, there are still huge long term challenges ahead for Greece and for Eurozone stability. ALDE believes that alongside the shared commitment to cutting deficits, the creation of 'Eurobonds' to mutualise Eurozone debt would help create that stability with fewer crisis reactions. But the focus across the whole EU should be on job creation through labour market and structural reforms, infrastructure investment and reinforcement of the EU single market and reduction in trade obstacles. This is very much Nick Clegg's agenda, along with Mario Monti, and they are absolutely right.

ACTA referred to ECJ

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) establishes an international framework to improve the enforcement of intellectual property rights and take action against large-scale infringements. In general I support that aim, for instance to try and curb drug counterfeiting which can kill people, and in order to safeguard legitimate investment, creative endeavour and innovation. But this instrument is creating huge controversy, attracting criticism from campaigners who believe it will inhibit online freedom of expression. I strongly support online freedom of access, though that is not the same thing as having online like music free of charge! I have an open mind on whether ACTA should be approved by MEPs and was waiting for hearings in the European Parliament to make up my mind. But it is a good move that the European Commission has asked the European Court of Justice to rule on the compatibility of ACTA with fundamental rights; you can read more here.

Cameron wrong on business 'snobbery'

I rather part company with David Cameron, see here, saying criticism of business are motivated by 'snobbery.' It is important to distinguish one type of business from another. Very few people object to true wealth creation which creates jobs and tax revenue. But how has RBS done that? After nationalisation through utter failure, losses this year of £2 billion but bonuses of £800m seems to me the financial thinking of the madhouse. So yes to rewards for genuine entrepreneurship but no to mega-bucks for taxpayer-funded 'masters of the universe' whose hubris has brought us all low.

Jack Straw feeds European Parliament myths

Jack Straw made a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), see here, in which he called for the European Parliament to be abolished. Basing his opinion on IPPR polling showing that only 8% feel engaged with EU decision-making, he claims MEPs have failed to bridge the 'democratic deficit' between European people and the EU. He wants to go back to the days of the pre-1979 'European Assembly' when MPs and peers not directly elected for the job (or not elected at all in the case of peers!) were seconded on a part-time basis to Strasbourg. This is neither feasible today when we have hugely greater responsibilities, nor democratic. There has been a robust defence of Parliament's role in the Guardian's letters page today, see here.

I agree with former EP secretary-general Julian Priestley wrote: "The real difficulty resides in addressing not a democratic deficit but a participation deficit. It would be helpful of course if national media were to follow the work of the EP more seriously. But the key has to be the transforming of the elections to the European parliament into clear choices about Europe's future, with European parties offering competing programmes which could start the process of making those elections genuinely European."

Public ignorance is fostered by the lack of media coverage. Even the BBC is now planning to further cut its coverage of the EU by axing The Record Europe, its only weekly programme exclusively dedicated to the work of MEPs and their interaction with the other EU institutions. Interestingly, the IPPR polling again found that the two top issues for which people want EU cooperation are crime and the environment. The call by 100 Conservative MPs earlier this month for the UK to opt out of EU criminal and justice measures shows that they are hopelessly out of step with popular concerns.