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MPs from Estonia welcome exchanges with UK counterparts

From 26th February to 2nd March BGIPU hosted a parliamentary delegation from Estonia, led by the Chair of the Estonian IPU delegation and their Social Affairs Committee, Ms Helmen Kuett from the Social Democratic Party. She was joined by her colleagues Mr Aivar Kokk from the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, Ms Marika Tuus-Laul from the Centre Party, Ms Monika Haukanõmm from the Free Party, and Mr Kalle Palling from the Reform Party. As many of the delegation members had a strong interest in social affairs, much of the visit focused on related topics, including health policy, pension reform and disability issues, but during many of the meetings and working lunches other topics such as security cooperation, e-government and the current Brexit negotiations were also discussed.  There was mutual appreciation of the excellent state of bilateral relations between both countries.

The delegation visited during the coldest week the UK had seen in years, and while everyone else in the country struggled with the unusual amount of snow, the Estonians seemed to feel more at home. Having flown in early on Monday morning, the programme started with a Welcome Lunch hosted by the Rt Hon the Baroness Anelay DBE in the House of Lords, and after a short introduction to the UK Parliament and the BGIPU, the delegation went to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office across the road, where they were hosted by the Director of Europe, Caroline Wilson. As this was the first formal meeting of the week, the delegation also used the opportunity of meeting with a government official to ask a range of challenging questions on the current Brexit process. In the evening, the delegation were hosted by BGIPU Chair Nigel Evans MP and some other MPs for a hearty welcome dinner.

The programme on Tuesday started with a tour of both Houses by BGIPU Executive Committee Member, Fabian Hamilton MP, who not only gave them an insight into the history and functioning of the UK Parliament, but also shared a few lesser known facts, which left the delegation eager to read up on more details in their guide books. The morning continued with a discussion on health policy with Health Select Committee member Diana Johnson MP, who gave the delegation an overview of the current challenges for the National Health Services and its funding system.

The delegation then witnessed an evidence session of the Digital, Culture Media and Sports Committee as part of their Fake News enquiry covering issues of great relevance to Estonia as well. After a working lunch hosted by Mark Pritchard MP, who had led a BGIPU delegation to Tallinn in 2016, the delegation had a chance to reflect with DCMS member Chris Matheson MP on the evidence session and the challenges posed by state-based propaganda, social media manipulation and disinformation. For the last meeting of the day the group returned to social affairs, when Steve McCabe MP, Member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, explained the UK’s pension scheme and the introduction of Universal Credit to the delegation, which led to a wider discussion on the challenges of an ageing society. The day finished with a dinner hosted by Ambassador Tiina Intelmann.

Wednesday kicked off with a roundtable hosted by Stephen Pound MP, Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Estonia, during which a wide range of topics, from security and defence cooperation, hybrid warfare and the threat posed by Russia to a comparison of social welfare systems, e-government and driverless cars, were discussed. The delegation then enjoyed the cut and thrust of Prime Ministers Questions and had a chance to discuss the lively debate with UK counterparts during a subsequent working lunch hosted by Helen Jones MP, who also went on the BGIPU visit to Estonia in 2016. The meetings during the afternoon addressed a broad range of equality issues, including a briefing by the Women and Equality Committee Clerk, a discussion with Baroness Hodgson and Baroness Gale on women representation and empowerment in politics and society, and an exchange with Disability APPG Chair Dr Lisa Cameron MP.

On Thursday the delegation was meant to venture out to Windsor Castle, but just before they set off it was closed due to rapidly deteriorating weather conditions. Not dispirited by the snow, the delegation explored Central London by bus and on foot instead, and ventured out to Ealing for lunch, spending the afternoon at Ealing Town Hall with Leader of the Council Julian Bell and local MP Stephen Pound to learn more about the difficulties local government faces in this country, but also to talk about social care, the future of local transport, the digitisation of services and “smart cities”. With a lot food for thought, deepened knowledge about the UK Parliament, our social welfare system and many new British friends the delegation managed to leave Heathrow Airport on time on Friday morning and returned safely to much colder Estonia later that day.