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Sarah's bulletin: 16th March

March 16, 2012 10:51 AM

Dear friends,

LibDems in action

I had a great time meeting activists, campaigners and our other parliamentarians at the LibDem Spring Conference in NewcastleGateshead. What a great place, even for a died-in-the-wool Londoner! I so enjoyed our brief time in the city that I wrote to Liberal Democrat News to say so.

We had lively debates of course, not least on the NHS Bill. My own view is that our peers have done enough sterling work - with the backing of valuable and energetic party campaigning - to enable us to endorse the much-changed end result. It does offer huge opportunities to replace NHS command-and-control with local priorities in commissioning health services. It is of course vital not to undermine the key features of the NHS of integrated and free care, although we must not be starry-eyed about how perfect it is at the moment, because it isn't.

We also had a very good debate and passed a motion on Europe, which included a call for the UK to support the Eurozone 'fiscal compact', see here. Other excellent motions passed were on civil liberties and fair taxation.

Nick gave an excellent speech reminding us that it's time to start advertising our achievements in government and among other things reaffirming his commitment to internationalism. I left conference feeling enthused not only by the North East but about our role in government. Take a look at this useful graphic from Mark Pack which is a helpful reminder of what we have achieved!

As the Financial Times this week said: "Mr Clegg's message - that being in government is 'hard' but right' - is not easy to sell to the base. But it has the great virtue of being true. By entering government the LibDems did themselves as well as their country a service."

Diabetes success

MEPs and NGOs committed to tackling the epidemic of diabetes - 30 million in Europe and 346 million worldwide - celebrated a landmark achievement this week. The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to endorse a resolution calling for an EU strategy on diabetes. You can read my speech in the debate here and my press release here. Europe has to wake up the sheer size of the diabetes challenge and treat it with the same sense of urgency as cancer and heart disease. The ball is now in the European Commission's court to help develop national strategies to improve diagnosis, screening and prevention and boost research, not least for a cure. You can read articles I have written on the subject here, here and here.

Women, women, women

Nick Clegg made a very important announcement in a speech in the Hague last week that the UK will sign up to the Council of Europe's Convention on Violence and Domestic Violence against Women. I am delighted as I did some lobbying about this Convention with the LibDem parliamentary Home Affairs team last year and got a pledge into the policy motion on Tackling Violence Against Women passed at autumn conference last year. There's certainly plenty to tackle on this score, as the Independent highlighted in a shocking new survey which found that one in ten women has been raped and a third subjected to sexual assault, with most perpetrators getting away scot-free.

The Government is taking another big step to protect women by explicitly criminalising stalking, which apparently a staggering 3 million women have experienced. This is an initiative of Home Secretary and minister for women Theresa May, and I'm pictured meeting her and Immigration Minister Damian Green in Brussels recently.

MEPs this week voted by a majority to introduce quotas for women in boardrooms and elections, see here and here. Of course I agree that women's representation at the highest levels of business and in politics needs to be significantly improved, with the percentage of women on boards of EU listed companies currently a woeful 14%. However I'm not persuaded that quotas - whether domestic or EU-enforced - are the best way of achieving gender justice, especially as it seems that the voluntary approach to increasing female representation is working in the UK as Vince Cable explains in this article in City AM.

Equal marriage in prospect

As Vice President of LGBT + Liberal Democrats I feel very strongly about the importance of equal civil marriage, as I point out in this article for Pink News and this press release. The LibDems in Government have pushed this up the agenda but it's a shame that the run-up to the opening of the consultation period about civil marriage being made available to same-sex couples has been clouded by inflammatory language from some quarters, including the Tory-turned-UKIP MEP Roger Helmer. To link gay marriage to incest and polygamy typically scrapes the barrel of prejudice without any foundation whatsoever. There is no intention to force religious bodies to conduct same-sex marriages. Please sign this important petition organised by the Coalition for Equal Marriage (C4EM)

I was glad to see that the United Nations Human Rights Council held its first-ever discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity last week, which must be progress. It's shocking that at least 76 countries have laws that criminalise same-sex relations between consenting adults. However, Pakistan, as representative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), denied that there is any legal foundation in international law for 'controversial concepts' such as sexual orientation and gender identity, so there'a way to go.

Secret justice

In the light of my campaigns in the last decade against extraordinary rendition and torture, I am deeply concerned by plans to allow the government to give certain sensitive evidence behind closed doors in inquests and civil court cases like those brought by former Guatanamo detainees. It would then be heard only by the judge and not the plaintiff or press. Only a government-cleared 'Special Advocate' would be present to represent the plaintiff and banned from discussing that evidence with his client. As I said in this article in the Daily Mail, one of the main areas of unity with our coalition partners is a shared belief that the Labour government seriously undermined the integrity of the justice system. Of course there may be occasions when there is a need to protect sources and national security, but the scope of this is potentially very wide. If measures like these had already been in place the complicity of British intelligence services in the torture of Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohammed would not have been uncovered. The government must be careful that 'national interest' is not confused with hiding political embarrassment and shameful conduct. I welcome the news in this Telegraph article in which I am also quoted, that Nick Clegg will be seeking reassurances about the planned legislation.

Fighting extremism and crime

In his speech in the Hague I mentioned earlier, Nick Clegg spoke about the value of European cross-border action on crime. This was music to my ears, as much of my day job is about encouraging European police and prosecutors' cooperation to tackle the massive challenge of mafia crime and terrrorism, and getting a common legal framework so that drug and human trafficking gangs have nowhere to hide.

This week the Norwegian Anders Breivik was charged with terrorism for the killing spree that left 77 people dead and Norway traumatised, and his trial starts soon. It's a reminder, if any was needed, that terrorists come in all varieties and we must combat extremism and hate of all kinds which could develop into violence and murder.

That's why I'm delighted to support a bid by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) for EU funding for the work of a European consortium they have put together, to develop and disseminate materials and best practice to turn people attracted by extremism away from danger. The ACPO 'Prevent' Unit has done some excellent work in outreach in schools, colleges and community groups, putting the UK definitely ahead of the curve in such effort.

I am seen here meeting Rozila Kana and Chief Inspector Rupert Dore from ACPO to discuss their bid.

Religion and freedom

One distressing aspect of the gay marriage debate is the attempt to create division on the grounds of faith. It's entirely possible to have no faith yet respect and fight for those who do. I spoke in a lively fringe meeting at Spring conference on religious freedom organised jointly by the LibDems' Humanist and Secularist Society and Christian Forum.

The case of Nadia Elweida, the British Airways employee sacked for wearing a cross on a chain round her neck in 2006, is before the court in Strasbourg after she lost in UK courts including the House of Lords. I understand why the UK government probably has to oppose her claim of denial of religious freedom, because it has to stand behind the UK courts. But on this one thing I think Boris Johnson has it right in this comment piece, that she should have the right to express her faith in a 'small and inoffensive way.' Faith is an important part of the lives of many in the UK. All should be able to wear and dress as they feel their religion obliges them and it's certainly not the job of the state to police this as long as no harm is caused to the rights of others. This is quite different to a B&B owner denying a room in a guesthouse to a gay couple or a registrar refusing to conduct civil partnerships, because then other people's rights are indeed restricted.

President Sarkozy has been courting National Front voters by whipping up prejudice around halal and kosher meat, but this risks discrimination against the Muslim and Jewish communities. Leader of the Dutch so-called Freedom Party (PVV) Geert Wilders established an internet hotline inviting Dutch people to register complaints about Eastern European immigrants. I supported a resolution in plenary this week deploring this divisive move and calling for the Dutch government - led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Liberal VVD in a minority government depending on Wilders for support - to condemn it. This issue is too big for silence, especially as the far-right in Europe is mobilising and uniting. You can read the press release from ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt here. I'm glad to say that Mr Rutte has now said he wants to come to the European Parliament for a debate, so he is listening to us.

Cameron and Obama

There is a lot for Cameron and Obama to discuss during the PM's American visit, more than could fill several games of basketball! Afghanistan, Iran and Syria are current and important topics, see their article here. I hope (possibly in vain) that Cameron stressed the importance of the US-EU relationship. As vice-chair of the US-EU delegation I work hard to increase cooperation and reduce barriers to trade and investment in order to boost jobs and growth. You can see here a speech I made in Parliament last year to achieve these targets.I am pictured here last week with Democratic Congressman Jim Costa.

Extradition was also on the agenda during Cameron's visit to America, as you can see here, and I hope there can be reform. Theresa May this week approved the extradition of student Richard O'Dwyer who has been accused of copyright infringement, see here, and this follows the extradition of London businessman Christopher Tappin. I hope she does not allow Gary McKinnon to be extradited. Nick Clegg has asked Ming Campbell to look at potential areas of reform, vital because this is causing a great deal of friction.

Lorry blind spots

As regular readers know, improving cyclist safety is one of the ongoing campaigns I'm involved in. At Conference I had the chance to see how a lorry sensor works in practice. You can see me here pictured with LibDem European leader Fiona Hall, Berwick MP Alan Beith, Brian Paddick and Caroline Pidgeon and a lorry fitted with a 'Traffic Angel' sensor device. I also met Steve Ransom from the British firm which fits these devices to HGVs and teaches drivers how to use them. The basic package consists of a night vision side and reversing camera, which eliminates all blind spots and means drivers know exactly what is beside and behind them. I have been backing Fiona's bid to make it an EU requirement for sensors and mirrors to be fitted to HGVs to eliminate blind spots. As a result of this pressure, the Commission is due to publish a report on March 21st which will evaluate the current law and examine the scope for stronger legislation to fit and retrofit HGVs with newer technology such as the sensor we tested out. It's encouraging that Crossrail is insisting that all lorries working on their site have to be fitted with blind spot technology, see here.

Tory British Bill of Rights Commissioner resigning

I was not sorry to hear that Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky has resigned from the British Bill of Rights Commission; you can read more here. He has essentially thrown his toys out of the pram, claiming that his opinions are not being taken into account by Ken Clarke or Nick Clegg. It hasn't occurred to him that, perhaps, this is because his views are out of step with the seven others on the Commission. They wrote to Clarke, telling them that Pinto-Duschinsky was stopping progress being made. He believes that Parliamentary supremacy should trump everything including common European human rights standards.

India exports execution drug

As readers know, the campaign I have been involved in to stop the export of drugs used in lethal injections in the US had success at the end of last year when we got the Commission to close a loophole in EU law, see more information here. It seems that America is now searching for other exporters and is looking towards India since EU rules were tightened up.You can read this interesting article by Reprieve's Maya Foa on Nebraska's attempts to import a drug from India that was designed to SAVE lives in the developing world.

ALDE group Vice Presidency

I am delighted to have been elected by my LibDem MEP colleagues to fill the post of Vice President of the ALDE group that the UK delegation - the LibDem European Parliamentary Party or 'LDEPP' for short - has newly secured. (Fiona Hall as our leader asked me to stand in place of her as she has her hands full doing other leader duties like liaising with Nick and our ministers in London). There are six vice presidents and we meet monthly with ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt to plan future policy activity (as well as to discuss some not-so-thrilling bureacracy, not my cup of tea!) Apart from the latter, I'm looking forward to representing, and reporting back to, the LibDem delegation!