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A big day for marriage equality in the Republic of Ireland

Irish Marriage Referendum

Today is an exciting one for equality campaigners in Ireland, with thousands going to the polls to vote in a referendum on marriage equality. This is the first referendum to be held on same-sex marriage anywhere in the world, so a vote for equality would be fantastic news for the LGBTI community in Europe, and another step towards an EU where discrimination is a thing of the past.

Irish citizens are being asked to vote yes or no to the statement that is no sex distinction in the legal definition of marriage. The Yes campaign is expected to win by a good margin, which means that Ireland could become the eleventh EU Member State to achieve marriage equality.

The referendum debate, and consistent polling in favour of a yes vote, has created an atmosphere where LGBTI people feel more able to be themselves. The Yes campaign has focused on the deeply personal stories of Irish citizens, including Ursula Halligan, a household name and political editor on Ireland’s TV3. Halligan had expected to always hide her sexuality, but came out as gay during the referendum debate, and become a valuable spokesperson for the LGBTI community in the process. The yes campaign has also received cross party support, with both the Labour President Michael Higgins, and Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny supporting a vote for equality.

Although the debate has been incredibly important, changing the law is the only way to really achieve equality. It means that same-sex couples would achieve real recognition that their relationship is a valuable as any other, and that younger generations will grow up in a society where they can marry the person they love, regardless of sex. In the same way that decriminalising homosexuality in Ireland in 1993 caused a change in attitudes, so would marriage equality for same-sex couples.

This is a cause that needs a bigger stage, and I hope that we will soon see an EU where same-sex couples can see their marriage legally and culturally recognised in all 28 Member States. Last year MEPs voted to recognise the increasing number of countries legalising same-sex marriage in the EU, and to encourage Member States to see same-sex marriage as a human and civil rights issue. Although the motion was supported by the majority, and by Labour MEPs, some UKIP and Tory MEPs unfortunately abstained or voted against.

We expect the referendum result to be announced in the early evening on Saturday, and I hope that the result will be a victory for the Yes campaign. We know that history is on the side of equality, and strides have been made in LGBTI rights that many of us would not have dared to hope for only a few decades ago. I am proud that the Labour party has played a key role in this, and in government we ended the ban on LGBT people serving in our armed forces, achieved an equal age of consent and banned discrimination in the workplace.

As a long term member of the LGBTI intergroup in the European Parliament, I will continue to fight for LGBTI rights at EU level, and look forward to the day when we achieve true equality across Europe.

Labour MEPs call for stronger EU-wide maternity and paternity rights – while Tories vote against

mother and babyLabour MEPs have called on the European Commission to present new proposals to protect pregnant workers and provide stronger maternity and paternity rights.

Yesterday’s vote in the European Parliament – which Tory MEPs opposed – follows four years of deadlock over the 2010 maternity leave directive which aims to extend the minimum length of maternity leave and protect the health and safety of workers who have recently returned to work after giving birth.

MEPs also called for legislation to establish paid paternity leave.

Glenis Willmott, Labour MEP for the East Midlands, said:

“Unlike the Tories, who voted against today’s resolution, Labour has led the way in advancing the rights of working parents.

“If women are to play their full part in our economic recovery, and if we are to boost employment, it is clear we need to provide flexibility for mothers returning to work after pregnancy.

“This is why Europe needs a modern maternity leave framework that enables mothers, and fathers, to balance their work and family lives.”

Labour MEPs back 0.7% overseas aid target for all EU countries

ukaidLabour MEPs voted this week for the EU and national governments to recommit to the target of 0.7% of national income for overseas aid. The vote came ahead of a meeting of EU ministers next week in Brussels, who will decide on an EU position for a major international conference in July on financing for development.

MEPs overwhelmingly backed aid being prioritised for basic social services and ‘public goods’, such as primary education, social safety nets and healthcare. There will also be funding for sanitation infrastructure, water supply and energy and strengthening the resources available to promote equality between women and men, women’s rights and women’s empowerment.

It also calls on national governments to actively crack down on tax havens, tax evasion and illicit financial flows.

Glenis Willmott, Labour MEP for the East Midlands, said:

“Labour has led the way for a progressive development policy to tackle poverty and inequality across the world. Our efforts in government led to a UK law to commit 0.7% of national income (GNI) to Official Development Assistance (ODA).

“Now is the time for other governments to commit, and for a strong new agenda to mobilise a range of finance to make the new Sustainable Development goals a reality and end extreme poverty by 2030. Our efforts in the European Parliament are pushing for an EU-wide commitment that will be essential to tackle global poverty in the years to come.”

EU must raise awareness of links between alcohol use and cancer

First published on The Parliament Magazine, May 2015

wineEurope is the world’s heaviest drinking region, with alcohol consumption reaching double the global average. Alcohol is the second largest lifestyle-related cause of disease in many European countries – second only to tobacco – yet our policies are lagging far behind in what is necessary to limit alcohol-related harm. Alcohol can have many negative effects and is linked to over 60 chronic diseases. One of the most overlooked consequences of alcohol consumption, however, is cancer.

Starting next Monday, it is the European week against cancer (25-31 May), and as member of the MEPs against cancer (MAC) group, I’d like to highlight the importance of EU action on this issue.

According to the international agency for research on cancer (IARC), alcohol is linked to at least seven types of cancer including mouth, gullet, throat, liver, large bowel and breast; the risk of cancer is higher still for people who combine alcohol and tobacco use. The European code against cancer is clear that “not drinking alcohol is best for cancer prevention”. In the UK, alcohol is associated with over 12,000 cases of cancer a year. Yet public awareness of alcohol as a risk factor for cancer is fairly low, especially for cancers other than liver cancer.

Only one in three people in the UK are aware that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer despite the fact that as little as one standard drink a day – for example a 175ml glass of wine – can increase the risk of breast cancer among women. It’s clear there is an appetite for a better understanding of the health consequences of drinking alcohol, and through better health information and labelling we can ensure that people have the information they need to make informed decisions.

Research in Europe has shown that one in 10 Europeans are not aware of this connection, and that one in five do not believe there is a connection between cancer and the drinks that millions of us enjoy every week. To raise awareness of the carcinogenicity of alcohol, a multi-stakeholder approach and political commitment is essential.

I was delighted that my colleagues in the European Parliament supported my resolution on the alcohol strategy last month as this helped send a clear message to the commission that MEPs want to see action being taken on alcohol. The old alcohol strategy expired in 2012 and we urgently need to replace it and look at where there EU can add value. Raising awareness about the link between alcohol and cancer is definitely one of these areas.

We are now at a point where the facts are clear – the science proves the harmful effect of excessive alcohol consumption on health and the link between alcohol and several cancers.   The health ministers of EU member states called for action at a special meeting in Riga in April, and parliament has made it clear that we want to see a new alcohol strategy.

While lives are being lost, there is no excuse for further delays. We need action now.

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