It was definitely not a sleepy start to the European Parliament's 2016 plenary sessions; we hit the ground running. With several important items on the agenda for employment, foreign affairs and the internal market, it was already expected to be a busy week. On top of that, we welcomed the new Dutch presidency of the European Council, whilst keeping one eye on European leaders attending the World Economic Forum which was taking place in Switzerland.
Labour MEPs also used the spotlight of the plenary session to promote two important issues for our constituents: the UK government's ongoing failure to apply for EU funding to help flood victims, and the review of EU state rules to help the steel industry.
Several Labour MEPs, including myself and fellow Scottish Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, represent regions where there has been severe flooding over recent weeks. As we have been saying time and again during this period, the EU has the EU Solidarity Fund which is specifically available for response to natural disasters. We wrote to Mr. Cameron in December (http://www.eurolabour.org.uk/floods-north-england-scotland-eu-solidarity-fund) to urge him to seek the money to help affected areas. As an EU member state, the UK is eligible for money from this fund, though the government do have to apply for it. Following floods in Bulgaria, Italy and Romania, these countries were able to claim €66.5m (£48m). Labour MEPs have not yet been able to draw any response on Mr. Cameron's inaction from his government, but we will continue to press him.
Labour MEPs continue to lead the call for EU action to save European steel industries. We have called on the European Commission to review EU state aid rules for the steel industry and secured an amendment to a report on EU competition policy calling on the Commission to review these state aid rules for energy intensive industries, guaranteeing effective carbon leakage protection and providing fair opportunities for EU industries. The UK steel industry is currently facing a combination of rising steel prices, social dumping, and an influx of cheap Chinese steel and climbing energy costs. However, we shouldn't have to be relying on the Commission. The government's MEPs voted against a report which recommended a level playing field for steel industries across Europe and the UK government has done nothing to help. Only on Tuesday, hundreds of jobs were lost at Tata plants in Wales, which will impact companies, communities and families. This is not a case of the UK government being unable to intervene, they are simply unwilling to. We will continue to update constituents on this story over the coming days and weeks.
In other votes this week, we called for EU action to tackle female entrepreneurship and means to raise skills to tackle youth unemployment. The EU can be a significant force to promote a better work-life balance and encourage girls' education in business and innovation; currently in the UK, men are twice as likely to start up a business as women. Boosting female entrepreneurship could bring £60 billion to the UK economy. We also voted for a report which calls on the Commission and national governments in the EU to act to increase the skills of young people to improve their prospects for finding a job. The report also calls for national governments to take action to prevent trainees and apprentices from being abused; recognise and strengthen dual learning; and implement immediately the operational programmes of the EU Youth Employment Initiative.
During this week's proceedings, the International Trade Committee adopted a resolution regarding the ongoing negotiations over the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) which called set out a firm series of demands to the European Commission. As the Socialists and Democrats coordinator for International Trade, I was very pleased that my group let the call for full exclusion of all public services, pushed for strong safeguards for workers, a binding new clause to guarantee data privacy and greater transparency. The trade in services is a significant and growing part of the EU economy. Creating a level playing field and opening global markets to European service providers is long overdue and crucial to the protection and promotion of jobs in the European Union. In no EU country are jobs so linked to the services sector as in the UK. The Trade in Services Agreement is an opportunity not only to boost our economy but to update trade rules for the benefit of all. Preventing social dumping and ensuring strict data protection is vital as e-commerce grows.
A report on the Digital Single Market (DSM) was put before MEPs on Tuesday. Labour MEPs tabled a number of amendments which would address the gaps on social and employment issues, universal access and coverage and improving digital skills. The DSM is a fantastic example of how British consumers benefit from EU membership. For instance, only last month, the Commission unveiled proposals which would allow travellers to watch geo-blocked services such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer whilst abroad. In particular, Labour MEPs pushed to ensure that future legislation takes into account and caters for those in certain workplaces, and rural and remote communities who have been left behind before. EU countries including the UK must invest in more superfast broadband and roll it out ASAP. The future lies in a knowledge economy, and we're working at an EU level to ensure that this is realised.
Labour MEPs supported new EU regulations that will raise safety standards for appliances such as boilers, gas cookers, ovens, barbecues and patio heaters, in an effort to prevent fatal gas poisoning. Continuing our support for strong common standards across a range of areas and industries, we believe this new regulation would ensure that a range of solid safety standards could put a stop to leaks of harmful gaseous substances. This is an issue Labour in Europe has long campaigned for EU action on, with several previous campaigns for carbon monoxide safety in particular. EU action can save lives. The regulations now go forward to national governments for approval, and are set to come into force in 2018.
David Martin MEP will vote today in the European Parliament for a report calling for EU action to increase the skills of young people to help their prospects in finding a job.
European Socialists call for action against precarious employment
At the July plenary session in Strasbourg, Labour MEPs voted for EU countries to tackle precarious employment - we particularly emphasised zero hours contracts, youth unemployment and poor wages. In September, we are once again pushing for action.
Currently there are 1.8 million zero hours contracts in the UK. Zero-hours contracts offer no guaranteed hours or level of income and deny workers financial security. I believe it is completely unfair that some employees don't know how much they will get from week to week, they don't have zero rent, and they still have to put food on the table for their kids.
Labour MEPs believe that if you work regular hours, you should have a regular contract, and that is why we are working to end exploitative zero-hours contracts across the EU.
European Court of Justice rules on travelling time
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that time spent travelling to and from first and last appointments by workers without a fixed office should be regarded as working time.
The decision affects workers without a fixed office and will affect, for example, firms that employ gas fitters, sales reps and care workers. These companies could be in breach of EU working time regulation.
European Parliament votes on TTIP Proposals
In July the Parliament voted on a report on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the proposed EU-US trade agreement. MEPs set out our demands for what we would like to see included in any final deal. The Socialists and Democrats played a leading role in securing progressive priorities in Parliament's demands. The final report called for the complete exclusion of public services, regardless of how they are financed; a binding and enforceable sustainable development chapter for human and labour rights and environmental standards; and the ratification of core International Labour Organisation conventions for workers' rights.
As the S&D spokesperson for international trade I negotiated the final text to ensure it reflected our key priorities. S&D MEPs acknowledged the need for increasing our exports to the United States in order to protect and create further jobs in Europe, and our support for regulating globalisation through trade treaties.
In Scotland our manufacturing, food and drink and textile producers in particular have much to gain, but any final agreement must be well-balanced and transparent. The final report also called for a new system of transparent, public law to replace the private investor-state arbitration system: commentators have noted "the European Parliament voted to overturn 50 years of international law" in this rejection of ISDS. The full report is now guiding the Commission negotiations which are expected to take several years. Labour and S&D MEPs will continue to monitor the talks before voting to accept or reject the final agreement.
EU funding to help tackle youth unemployment in SW Scotland
An amendment to the European Social Fund, voted on at the end of April, will unlock funding that will allow an increase in pre-financing as part of the Youth Employment Initiative (YEI) - an initiative Labour MEPs campaigned to create.
The YEI is available in regions where unemployment is over 24%; unfortunately, Southwest Scotland is one of these regions. The European Commission encourages Member States to use this funding to provide a Youth Guarantee, ensuring under 25s, who have been unemployed, are offered a good quality job, continued education, an apprenticeship or further training
'Dying to Work' campaign has European launch in Brussels
Last month, Labour's leader in the European Parliament, Glenis Willmott MEP, held a very successful first hearing on 'Dying to Work'. This is a TUC campaign whose message Glenis hopes the EPLP will be able to amplify in Brussels. The campaign aims to support those who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses to remain in work should they wish to, by having terminal diagnoses recognised as a 'protected characteristic'.
The campaign was started by the GMB following a member's reporting that their boss had tried to fire them after they had been terminally diagnosed with cancer. Given the European Parliament's record on successfully supporting and expanding workers' rights, Glenis promised commitment from Labour MEPs to work with colleagues across the parliament to ensure these rights are extended.
Working People must be represented in Cameron's renegotiation
Labour MEPs are continuing to pressure David Cameron to keep his word and leave the social chapter of the Treaties well alone. Our EU membership comes with significant employment rights, including a minimum of four weeks' paid holiday, a right to parental leave and equal protections for part-time and full-time workers.
The GMB wrote to the remaining 27 EU Heads of State on behalf of the British Trade Union movement to ask for their support in preventing any moves by David Cameron and his negotiating team to eliminate parts of the Working Time Directive and Agency Workers Directive during renegotiations. EU membership is best for Britain, and we want to ensure that the concerns of working people are not overshadowed by the concerns of business.
Gender Equality policies in the EU
The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has launched the Gender Equality Index 2015. This is built around six core domains – work, money, knowledge, time, power and health – and two satellite domains: violence against women and intersecting inequalities. It is based on EU policy priorities and it assessed the impact of gender equality policies in the EU and by Member State over time. The total score of the index for the EU rose marginally from 51.3 out of 100 in 2005 to 52.9 in 2013. However the situation varies across Members States, with the UK amongst those countries whose score decreased rather that increased.
‘Energy Package’ must protect jobs
The European Commission has released what it is calling an ‘Energy Package’, designed to lead the way in transforming the EU’s energy system. While the European Trades Union Confederation (ETUC) supports the idea of an Energy Union and welcomes the aim of more energy efficiency and less dependence on imports, it is concerned that the level of investment is not enough to put the EU on track to meet its 2050 targets and critical of the lack of attention the Commission has paid to employment impacts.
Labour MEPs support calls for UK to accept more refugees
Labour MEPs will continue to pressure the UK Government until it seriously shoulders its responsibility to the refugees entering Europe.
At the September session of the European Parliament's plenary, Labour MEPs and our sister parties in the Socialist and Democrats Group supported Commission proposals to relocate 160,000 refugees from Italy, Greece and Hungary - the frontline border states - to other member states across the EU. The UK would not be one of these states due to an existing opt-out on the EU Migration Agenda. Despite knowing this, Conservative and UKIP MEPs refused to support EU partners accepting refugees. This is a humanitarian crisis which needs a collective response; a response that Britain should be a part of.
On the 14th of September, David Cameron will meet with other EU leaders, and we urge him to use this opportunity to opt-in to helping these refugees through emergency European relocation programs. We know that the UK has a proud history of helping those fleeing deadly conflicts, and we believe that as a nation we must step up to our international and moral responsibilities to help.