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Straight Talking - March 2011

Roger Helmer's electronic newsletter from Strasbourg

Please feel free to distribute this newsletter, or to quote from it. It is primarily written for Conservative Party members and activists in the East Midlands, but may also be of interest to others concerned about developments in the EU. If you receive the newsletter second-hand and want to go onto the
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Jan Zahradil MEP becomes ECR Group Leader

Yesterday evening (March 8th) we elected Czech MEP Jan Zahradil as the new leader of our group, filling a casual vacancy created by the resignation of Michal Tomasz Kaminski, following internal difficulties in the Polish delegation. I chaired the session myself -- a privilege of the doyen d'age.

This post as Leader lasts only until December, when the regular mid-session elections take place.

The other candidate was Timothy Kirkhope (a third candidate withdrew), but he got only 18 votes against Jan's 33 -- nearly two to one.

TK's tactics had attracted criticism. While most British MEPs had done their best to avoid exacerbating the Polish difficulties, TK went to Warsaw and took a public stance in the most transparently partisan and self-serving way. This may explain his poor showing -- many of us had expected a tight result. And it may impact on his ambition to stand in December.

Timothy has always been superb at political tactics associated with career advancement. He had until recently been leader of our delegation for many years, and deputy leader of the ECR since its foundation. But he never seemed to me to have any political vision or objectives. Indeed I characterised his leadership policy as "Do nothing: and as far as possible, make sure no one else does anything either".

I am delighted by Jan Zahradil's victory, and wish him well for his tenure.

Strange media reporting of Zahradil's success

The media have reported Zahradil's success in the ECR leadership election as "A Defeat for British Conservatives". This is a curious and almost xenophobic attitude -- it assumes that we all simply seek to elect a compatriot.

As a British Conservative, I strongly supported Jan, because I believed he was the better man for the job, in the best interests of the ECR group -- and therefore in the interest of British Conservatives too. Given the numerical dominance of British Tories in the group, it helps the balance to have a non-Brit leader. I would guess that probably at least half of our British delegation supported Jan.

The media also made much of the fact that Jan is a climate sceptic -- presumably they were hoping to embarrass the Party. As it happens, Jan's Master's Degree from 1987 is in environmental technology, from the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), in Prague. So at least he knows more about climate issues than most politicians -- including Chris Huhne.

Say NO to AV!

In May, we expect a referendum on the Alternative Voting system (a referendum nobody really wants -- but we don't get the euro-referendum we do want!). But there is a danger that we may get AV, all the same, as a result of public apathy combined with a sense of "Well let's try something different".

But we'd end up with a system which is difficult to understand, and where a candidate who comes second or third can still win, and can exclude the candidate who came first. It has this in common with the euro-election system: it is difficult to understand, and this makes it difficult for voters to identify with their elected representatives, or to take their parliament seriously. If democracy is to work, it has to be understood.

It also means that we'd end up with almost permanent coalition -- and might never see another Conservative government. Of course David Cameron, who is opposed to AV, has a difficult furrow to plough. He needs to point to the dangers of permanent coalition, while singing the praises of this Coalition -- which is his government.

But we lesser folk have no such problem. I find that most Conservatives are frustrated and annoyed by the messy compromises we've had to make in Coalition, especially on my two pet issues -- Europe and energy -- as well as on university admissions, and indeed on the AV referendum itself. Coalitions are sub-optimal even when forced by electoral arithmetic. We don't want to vote for permanent coalition. That's why we have to vote NO.

The NO campaign was represented at the Cardiff Spring Conference (see photo) and they have a stunning booklet called "99 Reasons to Vote NO to AV". Every single one of their 99 reasons is simply a quote from people now asking us to vote YES. You can get a copy from www.no2av.org.

A couple of samples should whet your appetite:

Nick Clegg, April 2010: "I am not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party".

Electoral Reform Society, the main backer of the YES Campaign: "AV is not a proportional system, the Society does not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament". (The ERS has since withdrawn this 2002 statement -- I wonder why?).

And Neal Lawson, YES to AV Campaign Director, 2009: "I'm sorry but I'm not a fan of AV. It can lead to even less fair outcomes than first-past-the-post and that to me is the critical point". Not any more, it seems.

So there you have it. AV condemned by the very people now asking you to support it. Yet another reason to campaign for a NO vote.

Slander in Fleet Street

I've recently become increasingly concerned about all the press stories saying "MEPs did this" or "MEPs voted for that", and I rush off to tweet "No I didn't!"

A week or so ago Bruno Waterfield in the Telegraph wrote that "MEPs have voted for a £15,000 increase in their staff allowances". But I certainly didn't vote for it -- I was in Vilnius at the time. And there was no plenary session that week anyway. Turns out it was a vote by the Budget Committee -- and Conservative MEPs voted against.

In any case, staff allowances are not thrust upon us willy-nilly. We don't have to use the whole allowance. I don't expect to use all of the existing allowance, and I certainly shan't be using any increase.

Then this morning the BBC trumpeted "MEPs vote to ban naked short selling". But not all MEPs. Only the ECON Committee. And again, Conservatives voted against. We believe that short selling is a legitimate trading practice, that it helps to add clarity and transparency to pricing in the markets, and that if we ban it we risk driving the business off-shore. These trades won't stop -- they'll just go somewhere else.

I personally am heartily sick of politicians still trying to pin the blame for the financial crisis on the markets, when it certainly originated with policy-makers and regulators.

Then there was the blockbuster story in the Daily Express on Monday March 7th in two-inch headlines: "MEPs' medical expenses are an insult to tax-payers". Apparently we're all getting anti-ageing treatment, cosmetic surgery and pampering at thermal spas, all at the tax-payers expense.

I approve of the Daily Express campaign to get the UK out of the EU, but this is really a bit over the top.

Let's put it in perspective. For most of the twenty years before I joined the parliament, I was in jobs where the remuneration package included health-care or private medical insurance -- and in some cases a car, a driver, an apartment and school fees as well. So health cover as part of a remuneration package is not unique to MEPs, and not wholly unreasonable.

It's also worth noting that until 2009, MEPs' medical expenses were reimbursed at 80%, or four fifths. Since the 2009 election, however, that rate has been reduced to 66.7%, or two thirds.

But OK, you say, what about these "frivolous" treatments? All I can say is that I've never had cosmetic surgery on the tax-payer (or at all). Nor would I. And to be fair, I'm not aware of any colleagues who have (though you may think that some of them might benefit from it).

So please remember -- just because the paper says "MEPs did so-and-so", it doesn't mean that your MEPs did so, or even that a majority did so.

... and a bit of entrapment

The press are creating their own news by setting out to entrap MEPs into embarrassing positions. I was caught a couple of years ago by a News of the World journalist passing herself off as a student/intern, who spent a day in my office and wrote a satirical but not-very-damaging piece.

The latest Sunday Times trick is to phone up purporting to represent a rich (say) Russian businessman seeking advice and access to the European parliament. No doubt if an MEP shows an interest and offers to accept a fee, he/she will end up splashed across the paper. But the vast majority of us who give sensible and responsible answers will never get reported.

So I'll tell you what I said when they tried it on me: "I should be happy to meet your client and to offer him a short, general briefing on the European parliament, as a courtesy. But I have no interest in any paid rôle or consultancy position".

You won't read that in the Sunday Times!

Drama at the Cardiff Spring Conference

In Cardiff for Party Conference, I and the redoubtable Robert Halfon MP addressed a packed fringe meeting of The Freedom Association. Simon Richards had booked the Cricketers pub, near the Conference venue, some weeks ahead, and went round at lunch time to re-confirm. The event had been widely publicised.

But when I arrived at five for the 5:30 event, we were told that the landlady had cancelled at the last minute. Simon, with great presence of mind, had gone over the street to the Beverley pub, who kindly offered us an alternative venue at the last moment, but we faced the tedium and embarrassment of getting everyone to cross the road to the new venue.

I went to talk to the Cricketers’ landlady. She had had phone calls from the BBC, and threats from anti-fascist agitators who were opposed to us evil right-wingers meeting there. The landlady was adamant. “I didn’t sign up for this. I’m not political. I can’t have demonstrations outside and bad publicity — I’ve got a business to run”. I explained that we were simply a respectable centre-right membership organisation, with many members from the Conservative Party, but to no avail.

Then one of the “anti-fascist agitators” turned up, ready for the fray. But it seemed that he had confused us with “The Freedom Party”. Frankly I had never heard of The Freedom Party in an English context. We explained to the protester that he had the wrong organisation, and he was overcome with mortification. He and Simon went and spoke to the landlady, and sorted matters out. Simon then had to make peace with the Beverley.

After all that excitement, I suppose that the meeting itself was almost an anti-climax, though it went very well, and Robert made a robust defence of the government’s performance — while describing the Coalition as “not so much a marriage — more a civil partnership!”. I said positive things about our determined approach to the deficit, about Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms and Michael Gove’s work on education (though not our outrageous intervention in university admissions). But I was scathing on energy and Europe — two issues, by the way, which got almost no mention in the conference. In retrospect, my speech was substantially the same as the one I’d made the previous evening at the Rutland and Melton AGM. But originality was never my strongest point.

And the back-story to the Drama

Turns out that a Lib-Dem Councillor in Bristol, one John Dixon, tweeted earlier that day: The Cricketers in Cathedral Road, Cardiff hosting the British Freedom Party (#BNP spliter group) tonight @ 1800hrs. Complain on 029 2034 5102

So we have a Lib-Dem Councillor deliberately spreading a very damaging and libellous rumour that he knew (or ought to have known) to be untrue, and causing serious upset to the landlady and staff at the excellent Cricketers' pub. Deliberately inciting leftist agitators to protest. (And compounding the misdemeanor by mis-spelling "splinter").

The landlady Michelle Francis later wrote a very dignified and measured protest to Mr. Dixon, which I reproduce below. He owes her a very large bouquet of flowers, and an apology.

Dear Mr Dixon

I am the manager of The Cricketers, Cathedral Road, the venue where yourself and a few others wrongly tweeted that a rally of The British Freedom Party was taking place, along with our telephone number.

As I am sure you are now aware, that was never the case. This is a great traditional pub, very family friendly and in the business of serving great food and drinks and providing a relaxing atmosphere. I understand there was a mix up between The Freedom Party and The Freedom Association, who were in for drinks and a speech in the pub early Saturday evening. What I don’t understand is how somebody working in the political arena did not stop to think about checking this crazy rumour out before launching it off into cyber space.

Myself and my staff received over the next few hours very unpleasant phone calls which caused much distress and actually made me temporarily stop the function from taking place at my pub until the confusion had been cleared up.

The booking was taken in good faith, I researched The Freedom Association on-line, and although I am not a Conservative myself, saw it as a good booking with no implications what-so-ever, especially due to the Conservative party taking place in Sophia Gardens the same weekend. I had never heard of The Freedom Party, but now thanks to yourself and a few other quick fingered gossip spreaders I now know a lot about them!

I just wanted to drop you a note, being as you are a councillor to let you know the damage and stress what yourself and others said on Saturday has caused. A re-tweet of the facts would be very much welcomed. This is a new business, only being opened since last July, in an industry that is struggling. I provide a good working environment for 15 staff and I truly believe Saturday’s vicious rumours could have had a very damaging effect if not cleared up within an hour of the first few phone calls.

Yours, Michelle Francis

Engaging with Welsh Culture at the Spring Conference

I had a very busy (and exciting) time in Cardiff, but we found time to take in some Welsh culture with a Mediæval Banquet at Cardiff Castle, with a group of TFA people. More details and photos on the blog, and a photo here.

A busy travelling month

As already reported, I spent my birthday, January 25th, with the Malaysian Palm Oil Council in Kuala Lumpur (though I was only thirty six hours in Malaysia). This attracted some flack from Guardian journalist Leo Hickman.

In February, I spent a weekend in Jerusalem at the invitation of European Friends of Israel. It was almost surreal to stand on the Mount of Olives, and to see places whose names I had known from Sunday School.

Later in February (20th to 25th), I went for a week to Hong Kong at the invitation of the government. Having lived and worked there in 1972/73, it was fascinating to see how it had developed.

Then in the first week of March, the ECR Group study days took place in Vilnius, Lithuania, where we were hosted by Lithuanian ECR MEP colleague Valdemar Tomasevski. One topic discussed in depth was the reform of the EU's CAP. I have blogged on my contribution to the debate, and I shall be meeting Meurig Raymond of the NFU in Strasbourg today (March 9th).

On Friday March 4th I was as far afield as Melton Mowbray, sharing a platform with Alan Duncan MP at his Rutland & Melton AGM, before setting off on Saturday 5th for the Party's Spring Conference in Cardiff.

I have reported on most of these events in considerably more detail on my blog, and there are extensive pictures in the gallery if you'd like to make a virtual journey with me.

Recently on the Blog

In addition to stories on many of the visits I've made, I've done a number of pieces:

Supporting the Bishop of Leicester on the gay adoption issue.

A debate on CAP reform.

More on the Guardian's Leo Hickman and palm oil.

East Midlands cheeses in Stasbourg.

Parliament celebrates International Women's Day.

EU debate at Leicester Grammar School.

Plenary Speech on Croatian accession.


That's all from Strasbourg for March, but please check out my blog, and my web-site.