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Sarah's bulletin: 23rd March

March 23, 2012 9:42 AM

The Budget

I'm proud of Nick Clegg and his colleagues for securing a budget that can rightly claim to deliver for the millions not the millionaires, see the details here. With the new income tax threshold rise, nearly a quarter of a million Londoners will have been taken out of tax altogether since LibDems went into government, and three million will have lower tax bills. A key Lib Dem manifesto pledge - which has been long-standing party policy - is to raise the threshold to 10,000 before the end of the Parliament and the new step to £9,200 is a great achievement.

This help for lower and middle income families is being funded through taxes on the wealthy which is, of course, the fairest way to do it. You can see my press release here and read Danny Alexander's article on Liberal Democrat Voice here. Particularly welcome news is the introduction of a Tycoon Tax, capping the tax breaks the wealthy can use to cut the amount of income tax they pay. Labour's tinkering over 13 years made the tax system so complex that it positively encouraged tax avoidance -they left us with a tax dodgers' charter. We need to stop the richest being able to duck and weave their way through the tax system and end up paying very little.

Despite the necessary effort of debt-cutting to get the UK out of the economic mess left by the Labour government, money is being invested in the economic and social future of London: £25 million in developing super-fast broadband; 100 million in building new homes under the 'Get Britain Building' scheme; £70 million for infrastructure and economic development.

The media has hyped up the Budget pensioner tax allowance decision, but in the context of hefty rises in the state pension delivered by the Coalition - almost £10 a week in 2 years - it is not unreasonable to bring tax allowances for pensioners into line with those of younger people. This will not affect half of all pensioners as only 50% currently pay income tax. The Chancellor this week announced - paying tribute to the work of the LibDem pensions minister Steve Webb - the forthcoming introduction of a £140 flat rate pension.

Dollis Hill victory

Warmest congratulations to Alison Hopkins who successfully saw off Labour in Dollis Hill ward in Brent - in Ken Livingstone's back yard, as Brian Paddick has appreciatively noted! The full result was Lib Dems 1205, Lab 1168, and Conservative 140, a small but nonetheless signficant 0.4% swing from Labour to us. The seat could not have been won without the support of people from across the region and the victory is great news to put a spring in the step of Team London as we move closer to the Mayoral and GLA elections. Here I am pictured canvassing with Alison, Brent & Harrow London Assembly candidate Charlotte Henry and Sarah Teather MP a few weeks ago. Alison is a dedicated and energetic woman who will make a fantastic Councillor.






Hard work in Southfields

Meanwhile on the other side of London…..last weekend I went to lend a hand in Wandsworth for the byelection in Southfields ward. Here I am with Wandsworth & Merton GLA candidate Lisa Smart and the byelection candidate John Munro. The election is on March 29th; see here on Flock Together for contact details so you can also join in the fun to help get a good result for our hardworking team.







Transatlantic cooperation on justice and crime



My main activity this week has been on a delegation to Washington discussing transatlantic cooperation on justice & home affairs. I was there wearing two hats, as a member of the European Parliament's committee on Civil Liberties, Justice & Home Affairs ('LIBE' for short) but also as vice-chair of the EP delegation to the US. I'm pictured here with Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey and speaking at a conference organised by the EU on privacy and data protection, about which you can see more information here. Recent proposals on data privacy by the US administration and the European Commission offer the prospect of greater convergence between the regulatory regimes on the two sides of the Pond, which would be good for both businesses and consumers. I called for greater speed in getting an 'umbrella' data protection agreement between the EU and US for transfers of personal data between the respective law enforcement agencies, instead of the current fire-fighting we do on each sectoral request, whether on financial transactions or air passengers. Commission Vice-President Reding also spoke to the conference by video, including her view that Google is in breach of EU data protection law with its new policy of sharing data with advertisers and that it risks enforcement action in Europe.

We also had meetings with the US government departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security. Next week the LIBE committee will vote on whether to approve the new proposed agreement on conditions for the US to access Passenger Name Record (PNR) data for all passengers flying from the EU. This is data collected by airlines on travellers for commercial purposes to process the booking, and in addition to names and addresses, it includes information on the travel agent used, credit card details, accompanying passengers and frequent flyer programmes. We have to ensure that this data, which will be subject to profiling and data-mining, is not misused and is not kept for longer than necessary; you can read more about my views here. This is not on about intelligence-led investigations, when there is reasonable suspicion about a person and a need to home in on that particular needle in the haystack. Data-mining is about trawling through a haystack of presumed-innocent individuals to see if there are any needles at all. I would be less worried about the latter if I was sure that cross-border cooperation was effective for the former.


French shootings

It perhaps was not in the case of Mohamed Merah, perpetrator of the appalling shootings of the French Jewish rabbi and children and French Muslim soldiers. The press is reporting that he was on the radar of the French security services and was on a US no-fly list. The question therefore arises of what could have been done - but wasn't - to stop him. This incident has happened just weeks before the first vote in the French presidential elections and is bound to have an effect on the campaign, with Sarkozy vying for the right-wing vote with National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. I just hope Sarkozy - who is liable to say sensible things one week and inflammatory things the next - shows some leadership in calling on French people to unite in defence of diversity and against hate.

Some remarks by EU Foreign Representative Cathy Ashton, mentioning children in Gaza in the same speech in which she condemned the attack in Toulouse, were insensitive and unhelpful, not least as she appeared to give comfort to Merah's claim claim to act partly in their name. This commentary from David Meyer recalls the comments of French Prime Minister Raymond Barre to those killed by a terrorist attack on a synagogue 3 decades ago making a distinction between the Jewish victims and non-Jewish victims as if only the latter were 'innocent'. It is very unfortunate that Ashton's comments could be taken in the same way, and they were in marked contrast to those of Palestinian Prime Minster Salam Fayyad who said 'It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life.'

International Criminal Court

I have worked for a decade to push European support for the International Criminal Court, so I welcome its first conviction, finding Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty of snatching children off the streets to make them soldiers; see more here. Part of the difficulty that the court faces is that it doesn't have its own police force and instead relies on states to hand over people suspected of war crimes. The Court is also hindered in its valuable work by the failure of countries such as China and the US to participate in it, though the US does now assist investigations. It also struggles to work within its budget, which does not increase in relation to workload. That's why MEPs in a report last year called on EU states to better assist and co-operate in the execution of arrest warrants, provision of information and freezing financial assets of suspects. The court has served arrest warrants served on many high profile figures, including members of the Gaddaffi family and several charged with war crimes in Darfur and it is in the international interest to ensure these people are put on trial. Hopefully, this successful conviction, and the fact that former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo is now in court custody, should show that the court is effective and worthy of support.

Hungary

Readers will know that the ALDE Liberal group, including our leader Guy Verhofsadt, has been very active for the last 2 years in pressing for EU action to stop illiberal and even autocratic developments in Hungary under Prime Minister Orban, especially his new constitution and restrictions on press freedom; you can read more here. The Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional issues to the Council of Europe (the EU's sister body), has raised concerns about judicial independence and religious freedom. Chair of the Ethnic Minority Lib Dems Issan Ghazni is quite right in this article to stress that the EU is not simply an economic union but one built on the rule of law and human rights, and it is precisely in order to get these values respected throughout the 27 member states that ALDE has been campaigning so hard about Hungary.

Fish fight continues

The power of Facebook and Twitter was demonstrated this week after a successful campaign made France and Spain back down in their resistance to a ban on 'discards', the controversial process of throwing back dead fish if fishing quotas have been exceeded. You can see more here. The Commission proposed that the practice should be prohibited by 2015, but France and Spain had planned to block this. It seems that the 130,000 plus messages from social media sites persuaded them to drop their opposition! My colleague Chris Davies has been very active on the issue of preserving fish stocks for the future, and the picture on the left, with him in the fish costume next to me, is an example of the campaigning lengths he goes to!

Chris said: "Nations like Austria, with no fishing fleet of their own, spoke out strongly in favour of a discard ban and it's enormously helpful that countries that eat fish but don't catch it are getting involved in the fight. It offers a ray of hope that we might be able to put in place a sustainable fisheries policy that can allow stocks to recover and give a better long term future for fishermen."

Animal welfare

Conscious of the problems whereby UK egg producers have complied with stricter cage standards in compliance with EU law but those in other countries have not, I've signed a new 'Written Declaration' calling for EU states to follow the UK lead on pig welfare and the banning of individual sow stalls. An EU directive is due to come into force in January 2013 to make this law across all member states but yet again the UK is ahead of the curve. It's imperative to ensure that UK farmers aren't undercut by farmers from other countries with lower welfare standards; you can see my press release here.

I've also joined my colleague Catherine Bearder in signing a letter to the President of Cameroon following the massacre of up to 600 elephants by foreign poachers in the Bouba N'djida National Park. The Cameroon Government acted swiftly by intervening militarily but it's clear that more needs to be done to prevent yet more elephants falling foul of these well organised and armed gangs. In the letter we have asked President Paul Biya to ensure that those caught face the full force of the law and that the national parks are equipped with fully trained and armed rangers. MEPs also need to press the EU to help assist developing countries with wildlife protection, not only for the sake of biodiversity but also to help tourism and jobs.

Air passenger rights

I welcome the opinion by the advocate general of the ECJ - who advise the judges - that EU law on passenger rights mean that Ryanair should have provided better support for passengers during the Icelandic ash cloud; you can read more here. A court in Ireland is hearing a case brought by a passenger who was left stranded by the ash cloud and is asking for the airline to refund her over €1000 to cover the cost of food and accommodation for the duration of her delay. The Irish court has asked the Court whether the fact that the ash cloud constituted an 'extraordinary' event exempted the airline from having to provide help to stranded customers. The advocate general, whose opinion you can read in this press release, says no it does not exempt the airline. Even if events like the ash cloud are beyond an airline's control, it still has a duty of customer care and should not leave people stranded to fend for themselves. It will be interesting to see if the ECJ follows the advice of its advocate -general in this case.