News from Europe: Brexit, the North West & Citizen’s Rights
Brexit has certainly made for a turbulent 2017, so in a spirit of festive cheer, I offer up the winning entry from the TV Channel Gold’s Christmas cracker joke competition:
“Why was Theresa May sacked as nativity manager?”
“She couldn’t run a stable government!”
Boom, boom! Whether you’re chuckling or groaning I hope the festive season will provide some light relief at the end of another eventful year.
This year I have been out and about up and down the region, joining members on campaign days, on picket lines, rallies and demonstrations, speaking at CLPs and conferences.
Following Afzal Khan’s election as Manchester Gorton’s new MP, my good friend Wajid Khan has joined Theresa and me in the European Parliament. His warmth, energy and hard work are invaluable to our Labour team in Brussels and the region.
It was fantastic to see a sold-out regional conference in Blackpool packed with members of all ages, and listen to inspiring speeches from Jeremy Corbyn and members of the Shadow Cabinet. I spoke at a fringe event organised by Labour Means Business along with my colleagues Theresa Griffin and Wajid Khan. I also joined MPs Margaret Greenwood and Stephen Twigg to discuss proportional representation with members and activists from the campaign group Make Votes Matter.
A few weeks before I was honoured to attend NW Young Labour conference where Wajid and I answered questions about Brexit, which hugely concerns young people.
I continue to welcome many groups at the European Parliament, including recently some of my favourite Labour women from Fylde, Wyre and Blackpool.
As stage one of the Brexit negotiations draws to a close, EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU have still not received any binding reciprocal or unilateral guarantees. I know how this is impacting negatively on many of my constituents through the discussions I have had and from all the letters and emails that have been sent to me. It is true that some progress has been made, particularly with regard to the divorce bill and the issue of the Irish border, but many feel that their status as citizens is just as precarious as when the negotiations began. You can find out how I voted on the Brexit resolution here and other resolutions in recent plenary sessions in the European Parliament and read my Explanations of Vote here.
As we move onto stage two, it is important that citizen’s rights are not swept aside in favour of trade at any price, otherwise, we will be in serious danger of allowing a situation to develop whereby a tin of meat could have more rights than a human being. Freedom of movement for people as well as goods and services must, therefore, be our goal. Along with Manuel Cortes, leader of the trade union TSSA, I am proud to be a founding member of the Labour Campaign for Freedom of Movement, as well as a signatory to the Labour Campaign to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union.
As with all threats to our rights, it’s always those who are most vulnerable who are at greatest risk of losing the most, for example, children and the disabled. I have attended two APPGs (All Party Parliamentary Groups) in Westminster specifically dealing with Brexit risks for people with disabilities who rely heavily on the migrant workforce in the NHS and social care sector as well as EU-funded scientific research for innovative treatment. You can read an excellent document produced by the TUC here. Disability Rights who host the APPG have also produced this report.
Disability Rights, Mental Health & Wellbeing
As a disability rights campaigner I have long campaigned for equal opportunities, inclusion and an end to discrimination. In the European Parliament I act as a link MEP with the UNCRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and worked on a recent report on the Implementation of the European Disability Strategy.
There are estimated to be over 13 million disabled persons in the UK, who all have the right to live independently, with dignity, equal treatment, and, above all, to be able to fully participate in society. I was particularly pleased therefore to offer support to Labour Party Member and disability activist Miro Griffiths MBE, who is currently a PhD research student at Liverpool John Moores University. Miro participated in the ENIL Freedom Drive in Brussels and provided an excellent report which you can read here.
I am also an MEP Mental Health Ambassador and Member of the European Parliament’s Disability Intergroup. This year I was honoured to be named as a Standout MEP by Mental Health Europe, specifically for my work in the FEMM Committee on Women and Mental Health.
In November I opened an exhibition of artworks organised by EUFAMI to raise awareness of challenges facing the families, friends and carers of people with mental health problems. Liverpool councillor Alice Bennett accompanied me to the exhibition in Brussels where we also met longtime Labour supporter, the British artist-photographer Tony Fisher.
In support of Children’s Rights
November 20th was World Children’s Day, and I was pleased to host a group of very engaged school students from Accrington, Lancashire, in the European Parliament. They participated in events such as a TV interview with the Children’s International Press Centre discussing climate change and sustainability, perhaps the most pressing issues of their generation.
The Accrington group also joined a special meeting with Michel Barnier’s team to discuss Brexit Risks for Children, which I organised jointly with UCLan’s Child and Youth Participation Research Centre. Brexit has specific implications for children as the EU has enacted over 80 legal instruments that confer direct entitlements on children. Most aspects of EU policy affect children’s lives in some way and considerable funding and expertise from the EU have been targeted to promote the rights of children. There are particular risks, for example, regarding child protection, online safety, children living in poverty, child migrants and cross-border family law. It is very clear when listening to young people that they remain angry and upset that they could not participate in such an important vote about their future. Many schools held mock referenda and, like, the majority of young people who did vote, the youngsters from Accrington had voted overwhelmingly to REMAIN in the EU. UCLan are partners in a research project aimed at ensuring the voice of children is heard in the Brexit process.
Erasmus: A 30th Anniversary and Participation post-Brexit
This year we celebrated the birthday of one of the European Union’s greatest success stories, the Erasmus programme for education and youth exchanges. For 30 years it has brought generations of young people, educators and youth and community workers in Europe together to learn about each other’s lives and culture, share best practices and build a better future. Since the creation of the Erasmus mobility programme in 1987, more than 3 million young people have studied abroad and over 300,000 research exchanges, teaching and training have been supported. Many ‘Erasmus babies’ have also been born as young people met their soul mates and life partners whilst involved in the programme.
In 2014 alone, Erasmus+ provided the UK with €79.08 million in grants and allowed 36,734 British people to study, train or volunteer abroad. These grants help young people enhance their skills, employability and intercultural awareness as well as encouraging participation in democratic life.
Labour MEPs are fighting for the UK to maintain its access to the programme in the long-term post-Brexit as Theresa May has only confirmed we will remain in the scheme until 2020. You can sign the petition here.
Arts & Culture
As the Labour Party’s European spokesperson for Education and Culture I was pleased to attend the European Culture Forum in Milan for the launch of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage. Many British organisations were represented and it was good to catch up with Graham Bell, the Director of North of England Civic Trust whom I met last year at Camp Farm Roman Fort near Maryport, an amazing site full of fascinating history.
On December 6th I was thrilled to chair a Socialists & Democrats conference in the European Parliament on ‘the power of street arts for more inclusive societies’.
The conference also gave us the opportunity to bring live performance into the European Parliament, enlivening our everyday activity with fresh ideas and creative action! It was particularly moving to listen to soulful songs of Kurdish refugee musicians.
The Culture and Education Committee had previously organised a hearing on best practice cultural work with refugees which included an inspiring presentation from Dr Alison Phipps of the University of Glasgow who holds the UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts.
In November I attended the annual Platforma Festival and Conference on Arts and Refugees which took place this year in Newcastle, hearing from projects across the UK and Europe that are working to include and celebrate refugees and their cultural practices.
Giving young LGBTIQ+ people a voice
I provide many work experience and job shadowing opportunities for young people and it was my absolute pleasure to host Josh and Tom, two young British Labour LGBTIQ+ people for a week in the European Parliament. During a special event with IGLYO on ‘Protecting and promoting LGBTIQ+ rights for young people’, Josh and Tom shared their emotional stories about transition and coming out with activists and policymakers. These young people bravely conveyed how long and difficult their journeys had been as victims of bullying and discrimination because of their sexual orientation and their gender, highlighting the role of arts and culture as a positive force in their lives.
They also expressed concerns over their future in the context of Brexit, taking into account the increasing hate crime in the UK. Josh and Tom also participated in the annual PES (Party of European Socialists) White Ribbon action to end violence against women and girls, standing shoulder to shoulder with PES leaders and members of Rainbow Rose, the PES LGBTIQ+ advocacy organisation.
Women & Girls’ empowerment
Our democratic institutions are based on the idea that all fringes of society should be encouraged to get involved in decision-making. However, far too often, large sections of the population are absent from decision-making processes: Where are the women? Where are people of colour? Where are young people? Where are gender-non conforming people? Where are disabled people? Where are the poor people? To encourage the next generation to have democratic institutions that are far more representative, on the International Day of the Girl Child, the European Parliament hosted the Women in Parliament’s Global Forum Girl2Leader event where many young girls came to discuss political empowerment, among them Iman Chaudhry from Burnley, Lancashire. Iman is studying A-level politics and wants to work for the UN so spending time with women political leaders was an amazing opportunity for her.
Fighting for Human Rights
The European Parliament provides a powerful platform to speak out against human rights abuses and many MEPs choose to take a stand. I have been particularly active in respect of Turkey where the government has organised a crackdown against free speech since the attempted coup in the summer of 2016. President Erdogan has made it very clear that human rights are not one of his concerns. Last year saw me twinning with HDP MP Leyla Birlik who like me, is also an artist. Leyla was released from prison in January demonstrating the power of international protest.
As part of a project launched by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch, I have now been twinned with Zehra Dogan, a Kurdish journalist and editor of the feminist collective Jinha. Zehra is currently in prison for the simple act of posting one of her paintings on social media. As part of this twinning project, I have asked the authorities to allow me to visit her in prison and I will contact the UK embassy in Ankara to encourage them to take action and demand her immediate and unconditional release.
Working closely with Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs I continue to take dozens of actions and speak out about a wide range of cases in Turkey and elsewhere. One case that has become high profile is that of the Anglo-Iranian mother, Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, falsely imprisoned in Iran. I have been following Nazanin’s case from the outset, meeting with her husband Richard in the summer. The British government has done very little to help in this heartbreaking case and Boris Johnson’s gaffes have only made things worse. Like Richard and the rest of Nazanin’s friends, I keep hoping that she will be released soon and be reunited with her darling daughter, Gabriella.
Thinking of Others at Christmas
At this chilly time of year, I am sure you will be thinking of those in need such as refugees and homeless people, not just in the UK but wherever they are in their search for a life free from conflict, violence and poverty. Under a new scheme starting this year 200 homes were given to Greater Manchester’s rough sleepers in recognition of the shocking 41% increase in rough sleeping year on year in the metropolitan area. The recent ruling by the High Court that removing homeless EU citizens from the UK is "discriminatory" and must stop, provides at least a bare minimum of certainty for those who are in some of the most precarious situations during the Brexit process. Meanwhile, my friends Coffee 4 Craig continue to provide street support in Manchester and Rachel Holliday’s initiative at Calderwood House in Egremont offers accommodation and training, especially for homeless veterans.
Peace in the World
Christmas is a time to strive for peace in the world and one of the big stories in 2017 was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN for their work on nuclear disarmament. However, President Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem is both provocative and dangerous, making peace in the Middle East harder to achieve. In November my friends from the Parents Circle Family Forum did a speaking tour of the UK including a synagogue in the North West. The PCFF comprises parents on both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict who have lost loved ones. Like the majority of UN members, they are also very clear that Trump is out of order on this issue. If he comes to the UK next year I hope you will join me and thousands of others to protest.
Meanwhile, during this festive season, I hope you can forget the Tory Brexit fudge and instead fill up on figgy pudding!
I'll be back in the new year fighting for your rights at work, in your home and to travel in Europe as the Brexit negotiations move into its second phase. Until then, I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.