Posts Tagged EU

Labour’s Equality Bill lets down gay employees

Islington has been at the forefront of gay rights campaigning, including the first gay rights demonstration – led by Young Liberal Louis Eakes – on Highbury Fields nearly 40 years ago.

Just last week I was having coffee with a supporter who first joined the Lib Dems because of our pioneering record, championing gay, lesbian and transgender rights when these weren’t the mainstream issues they are today.

The world has changed for the better. This year I was one of thousands dancing through the sunny streets at London Pride. Civil partnerships are a real breakthrough we should all welcome. But homophobic bullying and hate crimes are still a reality. And so is employment discrimination.

Labour likes to trumpet its record on gay rights. But now the EU is threatening the Labour government with a European court order and possible fine, because they are breaching EU employment equality laws, by allowing organisations to discriminate against gay employees on religious grounds.

This is bad news for employees and also for faith groups, who once again get unfairly characterised as prejudiced extremists. The reality is that most faith groups are responsible, liberal employers. Gay rights issues are a divisive issue within faith groups, not between faith groups and the rest of society.

EU law is not about taking the faith out of faith organisations. In a pluralistic society that would be unacceptable. EU employment law rightly allows religious organisations to apply a reasonable requirement based on religion. So faith schools could require some or most teachers to be of that faith. (Although when St Andrew’s CofE school, where I’m a governor, appointed our new head, we followed the ‘Christian dentist’ approach: when you have a toothache, do you go to a good Christian, or a good dentist?)

Faith groups should not be allowed to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. And indeed under EU law they are not. But the UK Government is resisting this. Our local Lib Dem MEP Sarah Ludford has highlighted Labour hypocrisy on this issue. As she says, “It is extraordinary that Harriet Harman’s new Equality Bill does nothing to remedy this continued illegal discrimination, which would have warded off Brussels action. Her bill indeed seems to be more about gestures than real change.”

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Sarah’s my number 1

On Thursday night I was part of a posse of 16 Lib Dems out canvassing in Islington with our #1 Euro candidate, Sarah Ludford.

Sarah’s not only our MEP but an Islington resident and former local councillor for Clerkenwell, so she was very much on home ground. It was inspiring to see her in action, connecting with the bread & butter issues that people were raising and showing how positive action in Europe could help. The trail of orange posters going up in her wake was very encouraging!

As well as all the campaigners, Sarah had a UK TV crew and an Italian journalist in tow. He told me that earlier in the week he’d been shadowing a Labour candidate, and been met with slammed doors and abuse in the street: none of that for the Lib Dems.

The TV cameraman kept filming the back of our feet as we walked down the street (like those old title scenes for ‘The Bill’) – most unfair: now there’s another bit of the candidate’s wardrobe to worry about. I’m not sure when our heels will hit the screens but when I find out, I’ll post a link.

Meanwhile, I’ve just caught up with Sarah’s appearance on Sunday’s BBC Politics Show (about 30 minutes in) as part of a rather noisy panel of Euro candidates.

I know I’m biased, but Sarah seemed to me to be miles ahead of the others in giving clear and honest answers to the questions rather than launching into a rant. She pointed out, for example, that 2M Brits benefit from being able to live and work elsewhere in the EU; and how she has used EU laws to force our own government to clean up the river Thames.

I’ve already cast my postal vote for the Lib Dems for the Euros, hoping to get not only Sarah but also Jonathan Fryer elected, and the best possible result for the whole Lib Dem team.

If you are still a floating voter, then try VoteMatch to see how the parties meet your priorities.

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What has Europe done for us? #4

An email from Jonathan Fryer reminds me that the principle of equal pay we take for granted came from the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

In 1975, EU directives gave women the right of legal redress for unequal pay through the courts. Then came directives outlawing discrimination on the basis of race. Then in 2006 age discrimination laws were introduced in the UK, again directly stemming from legislation passed by the EU.

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What has Europe done for us? #3

One way the EU can help us is to use its clout to get a better deal for consumers.

For example, by forcing mobile phone companies to cap the excessive extra charges for roaming tariffs when you use your phone abroad.

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What has Europe done for us? #2

The EU social and regional funds are paying into London to help the city’s poorest residents.

The money, which keeps coming until 2013, includes £300 million for skills training, and £100 million for helping business development and community regeneration. That’s good news.

Less good is the reason London qualifies for the money. Alongside much poorer countries, and despite all Labour’s rhetoric, we have 1 in 4 London children growing up in poverty.

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What has Europe done for us? #1

Last year I wrote a couple of Guardian items, arguing for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

Not a stereotypical Lib Dem position, I know. So let me make it clear, I’d vote yes, and campaign for others to do the same. Europe has brought us peace and prosperity, and is the best way to tackle cross-border problems like pollution, climate change and organised crime.

London’s Lib Dem Euro candidates, led by Sarah Ludford and Jonathan Fryer, are all about making Europe work for us and for the values we share: a fair, free and greener society. And they’ll be getting my vote in the Euro elections this June.

But I think British citizens should have a say on Euro membership; I’ve had the vote for 25 years, and I’ve never had a vote on Europe. No-one under 50 has – in Britain at least.

The Euro-elections mean there’ll be plenty of debate about Europe: even though MEPs are not actually the people who can decide on the UK’s EU membership. And no doubt the Euro-sceptics will be rolling out all their favourite anti arguments and myths.

So it seems a good time to list a few of the good things we Brits have got out of Europe. And why, in my view, we’d be crazy to say no to Europe, even if we get the chance.

For example: the European Commission has earmarked €3.5 billion to construct new gas pipelines and electricity networks. These will link up member states and help it easier for us all to avoid possible future crises from being over-dependent on Russian gas supplies. This is combined with more work on devellping offshore wind projects and carbon-capture facilities; by working together we can get more of Europe’s energy from renewable sources.

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British workers out in the cold

Alongside all the images of people playing in the snow, are scenes of the protestors at Lindsey in North Lincs continuing their picketing.

Feelings about the loss of local jobs are heated enough to keep them standing in the cold.

These aren’t people unwilling or unable to ‘get on their bike’ when the local plant closes; the jobs are there in their town. And these aren’t people who are unwilling to take the jobs; the jobs were never offered.

The block letting of a contract to an overseas contractor who brings in their own workforce may be legal: but don’t expect the locals to be happy about it.

It’s wrong to dismiss this as a racist campaign. The global market in labour works for some but not for all, and the losers are entitled to protest – especially when their own government has let them down.

What’s made it worse is the crass response of Labour leaders. First Gordon Brown promises ‘British jobs for British workers’. It sounded like reassurance in a threatening world. It was anything but. The PM knew, even if his audience did not, that this was an empty pledge, designed to sugar-coat welfare reforms.

Then Lord Mandelson adds insult to injury by blithely telling people that they can go and get jobs in Europe. After all, he did. Not so much on yer bike as I’m Mandy, fly me.

Access to jobs in Europe is great if you’re in business class; and a lifesaver for the poorest with nothing to lose. But for ordinary workers with kids in school and mortgages or rent to pay, being told you can go abroad to work is about as helpful as being told there are jobs on the moon.

Lord Mandelson was supposed to be the master of spin. But now he seems arrogant and out of touch. And that’s exactly the situation than could cause extremist views to flourish.

I’m in favour of Britain’s EU membership. I think we are stronger and safer in than out. As Chris Davis points out, over a million Brits are working elsewhere in Europe. And many of the jobs at home depend on our position as an English-speaking EU member.

But I also think our government has a duty to work with its citizens to find ways they can get the jobs they need – like proper skills training, investment in green infrastructure projects, lobbying big contractors to subcontract locally – instead of leaving British workers out in the cold.

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