Sunday, 30 November 2008
I would like people to know that I am in the Westminster office at the moment, working. This shows what a dedicated public servant/ sad person [delete as you see fit] I am.
Will be out of here in an hour or so; I'm doing the Westminster Hour on Radio 4 tonight.
I hesitate to post this link, as I'm sure Don could do without the attention, but I think Dave Semple (see comments) has a point. Do people really believe all this 'police state' stuff, all this 'the next David Kelly', or are they just trying to whip up outrage for party political purposes? I suspect it's a mixture of both - to whip up outrage, you need some people who are prepared to be outraged. But there are quite a few professional politicians and party hacks out there who are playing this for all it's worth. Which is not to say I believe the police operation was justified, or proportionate to the alleged offence. I don't. (Although I do reserve the right to change my position if it turns out there is more to this than meets the eye).
Saturday, 29 November 2008
I'm a Celebrity. Don't watch it. (That's not an order. I don't watch it. I do read about it in the papers so I know that Martina is funny, and Brian can't keep his clothes on, and the ex-East Ender is tipped to win. But I have no opinion on any of that).
X Factor. Don't really think very much of any of them. Diana to win. (If I post it now, she will probably get kicked out in five minutes when they do the results... I've been spectacularly wrong so far). Britney Spears is taller than Dermot O'Leary!
Sunday newspaper reviews. Sadly, this is the only bit I look forward to. When, oh when are they going to ask me to do it?
They were presented with their awards by a man wearing a velvet frock coat, velvet waistcoat, velvet breeches, a white frilly shirt, black tights, and shiny black shoes with shiny buckles on them. He is the High Sheriff. Other awards were presented by HM Lord Lieutenant of Bristol (dressed normally, but then it's a woman at the moment) and the Lord Mayor in his chain and robes of office.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has no idea what the High Sheriff or the Lord Lieutenant does, or why the High Sheriff has to wear those clothes. It just seemed rather out of tune with the tone of the event. There was also a motivational speech from the TV presenter, Penny Mallory, which was actually very good and I suspect had quite an impact on the kids there. One of them said it had persuaded her to go along to the Britain's Got Talent auditions tomorrow! Well if Paul Potts can do it...
The other difficulty is that Parliament is prorogued at the moment. The Queen's Speech is on Wednesday, followed by five days of general debate on the Speech (interrupted by one day's debate on European Affairs on the 9th - why, I don't know). So we're on a one line whip till Thursday 11th and many MPs will choose to spend this time in their constituencies, or go on overseas trips, or take a holiday (not me, I hasten to add - I will be spending a bit more time in Bristol and making one or two speeches).
So I don't know whether it would be best to have a ministerial statement as soon as possible after the Queen's Speech or to wait until normal business is resumed. There is also the possibility the Speaker could make a statement. I expect that extraordinary circumstances may require an extraordinary response, and we might even get a statement next Wednesday, but that's mere speculation on my part.
Friday, 28 November 2008
So, before I get accused of avoiding the main issue of the day (tho' I bet someone is typing furiously at this very moment...) I had better give my two pennyworth on the arrest of Damian Green, although it has already been covered so extensively elsewhere in the blogosphere I'm not sure anything I can say hasn't already been said. But... my thoughts....
(a) If Ministers are saying they were not informed before the arrest, I believe them, because it would be suicidal to pretend they hadn't if they had, especially when it had already been made public that David Cameron, the Speaker and Boris had been told. And I agree with those who say that people would be jumping up and down and getting very excited if the police had sought a Minister's permission, on what is obviously an operational matter, first.
(b) Phil Woolas on the Today programme was obviously constrained in what he could say because this is a matter under police investigation, but he did hint that the word 'conspiracy' was crucial, which I have taken to mean that the arrest was not simply to do with receiving leaked documents from Home Office officials, which is not exactly unprecedented (as clips of a young and rather cheerful GB on Newsnight tonight have proved), but something more serious. But it doesn't mean the allegations will turn out to have any substance (a lawyer writes).
(c) I think there is a difference to be drawn between genuine whistle-blowing, where a civil servant is so concerned by what is going on that they believe leaking documents is in the public interest, and politically mischievous leaking, i.e. where the information might be embarrassing to the Government but has no great significance beyond that. One of the many things that Labour doesn't get credit for (along with the much-loved and oft cited Freedom of Information Act) is the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which protects whistleblowers in a variety of circumstances. It is probably, along with the FOI and the relaxation of the rules on forced killing of grey squirrels, counted amongst those heinous 26,000 laws....
(d) Damian Green is hardly Aung San Suu Kyi.
(e) But even if I'm right to suspect something more than a simple leak is at the heart of this, I can't see why on earth it takes 20 counter-terrorism officers (or any counter-terrorism officer, as opposed to some ordinary cops) to carry out the arrest. Especially when, it seems, the arrest was not under any terrorism legislation, but under common law "on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office".
(f) I know some suspicion has been cast on the timing of this, after Parliament has just prorogued. I suppose the police might have wanted to wait until Parliament wasn't sitting before they raided his office, just because it would allow them to carry out the search without disruption. But it's ludicrous to think the Goverment would have wanted it to happen right now. The Cabinet has been in Leeds today, with all the associated media planning surrounding such a trip. That's what they wanted on the front pages, not this.
Fridays are never a good day for blogging, as I'm either in meetings or rushing around. Started off by visiting Lawrence Hill Health Centre for an interesting chat with GPs, then met with some people from Bristol Civic Society to talk about their concerns about the Regional Spatial Strategy, then met the top man from BBC West to talk about Casualty and other matters, then over to Bedminster to meet Mr First Bus with fellow MP Dawn Primarolo, then back to the office... So - health, housing/ planning, media/ jobs, and buses all in one day. Plus signing Christmas cards (designed by a primary school pupil in my constituency - if all you libertarians post your full names and addresses on here, I'll send you one). Tomorrow it's an awards ceremony for young achievers, and on Sunday it's my first ever appearance on the Westminster Hour.
The meeting with First was quite productive, in that a 'full and frank' discussion took place, and various commitments were made, although the Blogger and his readers will no doubt be disappointed to know that no physical violence was involved. All will be revealed soon...
You often hear people saying that we don't have great orators in Parliament anymore, the sort of speakers where people would rush into the Chamber to hear them speak. (Enoch Powell, Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan). That's true, but there are a couple of new boys whose names appearing on the TV monitor in my office would at least make me flick channels so I can hear what they're saying. And as chance would have it, they were both speaking in a Westminster Hall debate this week, so I decided to pop in and have some fun. TC wasn't on top form, but his namesake certainly was; I've never seen such bizarre logic since.... well, since I last read some of the comments on this blog actually.
Thursday, 27 November 2008
As I walked home from the railway station tonight, along the well-lit streets, I crossed Temple Way at the pedestrian crossing; I looked down at the patches of tarmac where the roads had been repaired, and at the drains which lead to our sewers; I glanced at the litter bins where people deposit their rubbish, at the mini-recycling centre, and the big bins of rubbish waiting for the next collection; I looked up at the road signs which helpfully told me which street I was in, and the signs which tell visitors the way to the city centre, Temple Meads, and the shops; I walked past tidy grass verges and trees which had seen attention from the tree surgeons, past the zebra crossing near Age Concern, along well-maintained pavements...
And then I got home, and switched on the television to watch the audience pleading for more Government action to protect people's jobs and people's homes, and Government intervention to stop them being ripped off by the banks.
And I thought to myself, come the libertarian revolution...
My entreaties to you to 'vote early, vote often' for Rosemary's Garden in the People's Millions vote paid off, and congratulations to them, but now duty calls again. Tonight 'Operation Pool Table' is going head to head with 'Land Drainage Scheme' project, in a bid to win an award of £50,000. I am sure you will agree that Operation Pool Table sounds far more exciting... and not just bcause it's about doing up and extending Meadow Vale Community Centre in my constituency. There's a real lack of youth facilities in the area, and there's been a dispersal order in place to stop young people hanging around the streets, so this would be a major boost.
Voting is open from 9am to midnight. To support Operation Pool Table, call 0871 62 68 158 to cast your vote.
Such a timely report can help to keep child poverty on the political agenda. We are in a slightly strange situation now. Hon. Members have referred to the disappointing figures that were released recently, but they are now quite significantly out of date. As the Child Poverty Action Group and others have said, we already have measures in place from the 2008 Budget, and some from the 2007 Budget as well, that will help to lift another 500,000 children out of poverty. We should not lose sight of the fact that certain measures have not yet come into effect, but are still moving the Government's trajectory towards meeting the target in the right direction.
I shall focus on one small aspect of the report, because the three Committee members who have spoken have already talked in detail about things such as child care, the take-up of benefits, and “better off in work” calculations. I shall explore the broader issue of how we make the political case for tackling child poverty. That is increasingly important now. Perhaps the public's attitude was more sympathetic when people generally felt quite well off, but when they start to feel the pinch in their own pockets as food and fuel prices rise and they feel that things are not quite as rosy as they were, it is even more difficult to make the case for redistribution from the better-off to the people who need it the most.
I was struck by the reference in the report to evidence that the public tend not to believe that poverty really exists in the UK. That was mentioned a lot when, with the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), and other Members of Parliament, I took part in a discussion yesterday with people from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others. Now, people tend to think of poverty as something that is seen in Darfur—people living on the brink of starvation in desperate circumstances. They quite easily dismiss claims about poverty in the UK with comments such as, “Oh, you can't afford a new pair of trainers.” They think that that is all it is. The case needs to be made.
I was struck by this statement in the report:"“Long-term economic stability in the UK means the public tend to feel there is no excuse for poverty; it is the result of bad choices and wrong priorities, and therefore not a subject for public help.”"
The report also states:"“The public believe that social relations within society are breaking down due to antisocial behaviour; the real problem is seen as 'emotional poverty', not lack of physical or concrete resources.”"
The Committee cites research from 2007 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Ipsos MORI to back that up. It is a telling point. To an extent, such attitudes are nothing new. In the past, distinctions have been drawn between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor. The media and certain politicians have focused on attacks on feckless single mothers, workshy scroungers, or benefit fraudsters—often straying into racist territory. We are all familiar with stories—grossly distorted—about immigrants and asylum seekers coming to Britain to take advantage of our generous benefits system.
I do not deny that some people out there play the system. They are in it for what they can get and they do not feel that they have any reciprocal responsibility to society. We know that some people do not want to work. We see that in our constituencies and in the press. However, for every person I see at my surgeries, hear about from other constituents or read about in the local press who might fall into that category, I come across many, many more who are desperate to get themselves out of the situation in which they find themselves. They know how soul destroying, demeaning and exhausting poverty can be and they do not want that for their children. There is an intergenerational cycle whereby children who are brought up in poverty tend to go on to be poor themselves—poverty is passed on from generation to generation. Although some people do not have aspirations for themselves, many more are quite willing to move into work; they just need help and support to do that and the Government policies that can point them in the right direction.
As I said, the research on public attitudes revealed that people believe that poverty is the result of people making the wrong choices and having the wrong attitudes and the wrong priorities—that the problem is emotional poverty. There has been a recent public focus on what, rather than the undeserving poor, could be termed the dysfunctional poor. The focus is not so much on people as economic participants but on people's behaviour. To some extent, the media these days are almost celebrating dysfunctionality in families. I do not want to give yet more publicity to certain television shows, but Members probably know the sort that I mean—the sort of show, for instance, in which someone having a DNA test live on television is thought to be a good way of announcing to the world who a child's parent is. There is something seriously wrong with that.
We see that attitude also in relation to certain celebrities. One young woman, who obviously has serious mental health and drug problems, shares my name. I often walk into the newsagents and see headlines saying “Kerry on the verge of collapse”, “Kerry back in rehab”, “Kerry's drugs hell”, “Kerry not fit to be a mother” and so on. That is presented as entertainment, but for celebrities income is not a problem. At a lower level in the media, however, dysfunctional families are paraded as if they were entertainment.
That may be partly because, as has been said, there has not been so much of a focus lately on economic issues. If people feel relatively well off, they will not be so concerned that their money is being used to support those unemployed people who want to be unemployed. However, there is now more of a pejorative element—it is more a moral judgment about people's other choices rather than specifically about work.
That element is linked in part to the fact that, for laudable reasons, the Government have focused on antisocial behaviour and their Respect agenda. That is entirely laudable and something that should certainly be pursued, but it has moved the debate on a little. Instead of it being about people who live in poverty and deprivation in difficult circumstances, it is now seen as being about families who have drug and drink problems, who may suffer domestic violence, or who are involved in criminal activity or prostitution. That is what people think of when the subject of poor families is raised. The focus is important.
The Government's Families at Risk review is concentrating on those families that have multiple disadvantages, and that is to be welcomed. However, focusing only on those families, and seeing poverty just as something that is associated with that sort of dysfunction, does a grave disservice to those who are on relatively modest incomes and lead relatively modest lives but who are struggling to keep above the breadline.
We know that 50 per cent. of children who live in poverty have one or more parents in work and that they have relatively normal lifestyles. It is about making work pay, being able to afford transport, being able to meet those unexpected costs, such as when the fridge stops working, or when the car that one needs to get to work breaks down. Rises in the price of fuel and food will have a disproportionate impact on the poor.
I shall not go back into the detail of what has already been said. I think that the Government are on the right lines with the packages that they are trying to deliver to people to make them better off in work. I am more concerned about what could be the subjective judgment on whether a person is better off in work. We have heard that the calculations are complex. However, we need to deal with the sort of situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), of someone having to prove that child care is not available.
I am thinking of a particular scenario. In Bristol, public transport is pretty appalling. Someone who has a part-time job, perhaps in the new retail development that is soon to open in Bristol city centre, will have to fit that job around getting one child to a child minder and getting the other child to school and then getting the bus into work, and after work having to be at the school gates in time to pick up one kid and then to the child minder to pick up the other one. If the buses are persistently late or do not turn up at all, that element can throw the whole arrangement out. On paper, the authorities can say, “We've done the sums. You can afford the child care with the help of child care tax credits. You can afford the bus fares and this and that.” But if the bus does not turn up and the bus company does not admit that the buses are running late, which happens, the whole thing goes out of the window.
We have heard figures on how many lone parents work—I believe that it is about 30 per cent.—but I wonder how many of them are in longer-term jobs. The lone parents that I know tend to work for three months or six months, but find it too much of a struggle and go back on benefit; a few months later, they are struggling on benefits, and they decide to try another option. They have a succession of low-paid, casual and temporary jobs, and it is difficult for them to sustain the kind of job that would lead a career or to them acquiring more skills."
"I speak to head teachers in my constituency who are in absolute despair at the dysfunctional and chaotic lives of some parents who bring children to their schools. I am not saying that those parents do not care about their children—they do—but sometimes they do not know how to care for them, or they have so much to contend with in their daily lives that they cannot give their children the care, attention and love that they need to thrive. I am talking about parents who are drug users, and who might be involved in violent or abusive relationships, or might be engaged in drug dealing, crime or prostitution. About 300 women are working on the streets of Bristol at any given time, and many of them are mothers. Of course, some of those mothers are little more than children themselves."
And then about a week later you would have found this comment piece by yours truly (which got a rather good response, I recall).
At Prime Minister’s questions this week I asked Gordon Brown about an issue that has been on my mind for some time. It is an issue that is raised whenever I speak to people in the inner-city areas and council estates in my constituency, particularly by older constituents who have worked hard all their lives, paid their taxes, and made their contribution as honest, decent members of the community. They want to know why we seem to tolerate people who are physically capable of work, but have no interest in doing so. They express concern that some– generation after generation in some families - have opted out of civil society altogether: dropping out of school; rejecting opportunities to work or train; indulging in anti-social behaviour and making life a misery for their neighbours. The suspicion is often voiced that their lifestyles are financed by criminal activity.
I do not believe that this is an overwhelming problem; I think it probably only applies to a very small minority of people. But I understand the resentment expressed by my constituents. They quite rightly object to the fact that some people are quick to claim their rights to benefits, to public services - rights funded by the contributions of others - but reject any responsibility to make a contribution to society themselves.
When I left school, many of my friends and fellow pupils struggled to find work; it was the early 1980s, in the middle of a deep and prolonged economic recession. Unemployment was 3 million and rising. People desperately wanted to work, but couldn’t. This is simply not the case these days. In Bristol, Job Centre Plus have 5000 or so vacancies on their books; they estimate there are around 10,0000 vacancies in the local economy. The new Cabot Circus development will bring thousands of new jobs to Bristol city centre, which should make dramatic inroads into the unemployment statistics in our inner-city areas.
The Government is doing many things, on many fronts, to equip people for the world of work: improving literacy and numeracy standards in our schools; introducing vocational diplomas for 14-19 year olds; raising the school leaving age so that young people will be required to remain in education or training till they are 18; establishing modern apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship skills training. We also need to raise children’s aspirations, and show them the benefits of getting a decent education and a foothold on the career ladder. This is particularly important for children from households where parents don’t work, or left education early.
The Government is also helping people who are claiming benefits but want to work. The oft cited statistic is that once someone has been on Incapacity Benefit for more than six months, they’re more likely to die claiming the benefit than they are to find work. And yet many claimants could work if they were equipped with the training, skills and, above all, the support they need to find new jobs. Unlike in decades past when most claimants had industrial injuries, many claimants these days have mental health problems, depression, work-related stress, or addictions. With the right support and encouragement, with mentoring and work experience placements, their lives could be turned around. The new Employment and Support Allowance, being introduced this October as a replacement for Incapacity Benefit for new claimants, will see much more of a focus on what people can do, rather than what they can’t do, and identify what training or adaptations they need to be able to work.
The Government also wants to do more to help lone parents find work. We inherited an appalling situation in 1997, with 1 in 3 children in the UK living in poverty. Our ambition is to halve child poverty by 2010 and abolish it within a generation – and all the evidence shows that the best route out of poverty is to work. Yet 27% of the children living in poverty in my constituency are in workless households. From October lone parents whose youngest child is 12 or over will be encouraged to work; by 2010, this will apply when the youngest child is 7. But we have to be sure factors such as childcare costs, travel to work and school meals are taken into account in judging whether their family will be better off in work than on benefits - something I also raised in Parliament this week.
Through the Government’s efforts many more of those who want to work will be helped to do so. And the welfare state must of course still be there for those who can’t do so. But that still leaves that small minority of people who have chosen not to work. The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced this week that this will no longer be tolerated. Everyone who is long term unemployed, claiming Job Seekers Allowance and participating in the new Flexible New Deal will be expected to take active steps to return to work, including doing at least four weeks full time work or work-related activity in return for their dole money. This may sound tough to some people, but it is clear that if we are to break the generational cycle of poverty and unemployment in some parts of our city, we need to send out a clear message that everyone is expected to pull their weight.
Core of teenagers refusing to work - Bristol MP
21 February 2008, Bristol Evening Post
Hundreds of 16- to 18-year- olds in Bristol are refusing to work or train for jobs, the Prime Minister has been warned.
Bristol East Labour MP Kerry McCarthy claims that even though youth unemployment has dropped by more than half over the last decade in her constituency, a "hard, resilient core" of youngsters still refuse to go to college or get a job.
During Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, the MP for Bristol East called for more to be done to tackle the problem.
Latest figures show that 1,840 16- to 18-year-olds in the former Avon area are classed as "NEETs" (Not in Education Employment or Training).
Ms McCarthy told the Prime Minister: "Youth unemployment has fallen by 58 per cent in my constituency since 1997. "But there is still a resilient core of young people who are not in work, education or training.
"They are in families in which a culture of being out of work and dependent on benefits has been passed down from one generation to the next."
Ms McCarthy warned that jobless teens were often linked to crime and anti-social behaviour.
She raised the issue after Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell unveiled new plans to tackle unemployment by forcing the long- term jobless to do a month's work or face losing benefits.
Those who refuse would be subject to a "strict sanctions regime" that could see them being forced to work for their benefits or have their benefits removed altogether.
The Bristol East MP said tough measures were the only way to deal with people who refused all other help to get work.
She said: "We have done really well on employment but there is a concern that there is a hard core that have fallen by the wayside.
"There are some people not being reached by existing measures.
"There are lots of options - there are apprenticeships and jobs - but with some people it has got to be a tougher approach.
"It is not fair that other people are subsidising their lifestyles.
"I meet older residents who have lived on an estate all their lives, who have worked and feel they have made a contribution, and they feel resentful.
"There is a concern that people may be subsidising their lifestyles with crime. Anti-social behaviour can also be a problem. Everyone knows of problem families.
"Does the Prime Minister agrees we could and should be doing more to break the cycle of poverty and unemployment?"
Bristol had 940 NEETs in 2006, B&NES recorded 270, North Somerset 250 and South Gloucestershire 380.
Mr Brown told MPs: "She is absolutely right, and I applaud the way that she has taken up the issue of youth employment in her constituency and in the country.
"Youth unemployment has fallen by more than 60 per cent over the last 10 years, but there is more to do. That is why the Welfare Secretary is putting forward proposals to deal with people who are long-term unemployed ."
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
I have only just spotted this story from last week's Mirror.
Swiss army bans vegetarians
The Swiss army is banning strict vegetarians and the very thin from its ranks. But cannabis and ecstasy takers will still have to do military service. People of average height weighing more than 16 stone, diabetics and those with flat feet are also barred from service. Green MP Josef Lang warned: "Half the male population will now become vegans."
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
Have just been on the phone to Mother, like the good daughter that I am. (You're lucky, she's been without a computer connection for the last fortnight, otherwise there would have been a lot more deleted comments). She's recently acquired a very cute puppy called Teddy*, who has taken exception to her Christmas nativity decorations, and keeps removing Baby Jesus from his crib. A classic case of 'dog in a manger'.
*Her father (my grandfather) was called Teddy. And her mother (my grandmother) was called Dolly. True fact! And they were both only about 5 foot tall. I am of course much taller.
Starting with this story about throwaway fashion and Primark. This is actually something I've wanted to bring up before but there's a danger of being seen to be a bit 'let them eat cake', i.e. it's OK for me on an MP's salary to criticise people buying £3 tops from Primark, because I can afford not to do so. OK, some people wouldn't be able to afford clothes at all if they didn't shop at Primark and the supermarkets, but many people probably spend as much as I do (or as much as I did before my doing-my-bit-for-the-fiscal-stimulus at the weekend) but spend it on lots and lots of cheap items which they wear a few times and then discard when they start looking a bit shabby. It's the always-wanting-something-new-to-wear-on-Saturday-night syndrome (whereas I have the put-on-the-scruffy-grey-cashmere-jumper-and-pyjama-bottoms-Saturday-night-syndrome).
So, dangerous territory for an MP to venture onto, but I agree with Michael Jack, quoted in the Daily Mail article, that ‘The whole notion of throwaway fashions needs to be re-examined. People may want something that is fashionable, but they should also be thinking about whether what they are buying will last.’
This also leads us - in a tangential way - onto Andrew Lansley's statement that being in recession could be good for us. We can all learn to darn socks and sew buttons back on again, and knit our own yoghurt. (I'm told they already do that in Stroud).
Monday, 24 November 2008
For the locals amongst you, there's a People's Millions vote today, and one of the projects is from east Bristol. (You may recall that Sustrans won the national competition not so long ago). Today's vote is between the Rosemary's Garden project (see my website for details, it's at the Rosemary Nursery in St Judes) and a play area project. Rosemary's Garden will be featured on ITV West regional news this evening, if you want to find out more.
Voting is open from 9am to midnight, and to support Rosemary's Garden project, you can call 0871 62 68 152 to cast your vote.
The project that receives the most public support will win an award of £50,000 from the Big Lottery Fund. The runner up with the highest number of votes in each ITV region will also win an award, so every vote counts!
Sunday, 23 November 2008
The Politics Show (South West bit) had an intriguing item on Tory MP Ian Liddell-Grainger and his attacks on Lib Dem controlled Somerset County Council on his website. I couldn't find the bits on his site that they featured in the show (cackling laughter, pictures of pants on fire, quite bizarre - the Lib Dems have accused him of being a cyber-bully, which is.... very Lib Dem) but the site is still worth a look. It somehow manages to be pretty good and give the impression he's barking mad at the same time. He even includes electoral registration forms for would-be voters to download. But then again, he probably doesn't have many immigrants in his patch, so I suppose that's OK, isn't it? (Sarcasm alert for new readers - apparently I have committed a heinous crime in suggesting I want more constituents to register to vote, and it was suggested that it was in fact a criminal offence for an MP to concern herself with such business).
And check out Mogg the Blog; what is it with these Tory MPs and their cats? (Ann Widdecombe's another one).
The Observer compares some stats on John Major's government of 1992 with Gordon Brown's of 2008 - price of bread, price of milk, house prices, etc.
1992's best selling single was Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You; 2008's, so far, is Leona Lewis, Bleeding Love. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Speaking of Norman Baker, which I was in my previous post, I did an interview by email with Uncaged magazine last week and they sent an interview with him as a past example. He said his latest big issue is livestock/ methane, so I guess we can expect a deluge of questions on that soon. I submitted one a few weeks ago, and got an answer that could best be described as 'unsatisfactory', so have tried again, with several more probing variations on the same theme; I'm expecting answers soon, before prorogation.
Has spoken in 43 debates in the last year — well above average amongst MPs.
Has received answers to 64 written questions in the last year — above average amongst MPs.
Has voted in 88% of votes in parliament — well above average amongst MPs.
The above average for written questions is probably about right. The well above averages are usually opposition frontbenchers, whose researchers spend all their time trying to dig up info on the Government, or are bordering on the obsessive. Norman Baker is on 784 written questions as we go to press... that's a lot of public money, some validly spent, some not so.
This question, about Martin Salter and his (disappointing) support for shooting, yields a slightly bizarre response. (Try clicking on 'the charter'. I think we will all be relieved to hear that it's not an official government document.)
Saturday, 22 November 2008
It's probably full of kids whose Dads are into 'oldies' like the Clash, Joy Division, and the Smiths. I suppose it could even be full of kids whose Dads (or Mums) were into the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Blur. Scary thought.
It was actually the South Central and West Pensioners Convention, with only a couple of locals there. And it was to mark the centenary of the state pension. (Fact - when the state pension was introduced in 1908 only 25% of people lived to pensionable age, and most of them only survived a few years after that; now it's 80% and many of them live into their 80s or 90s).
My fellow panel speakers included Tim Lezard (NUJ/ Chair of SW TUC, decent bloke), someone from the NPC who was allowed to speak for longer than the rest of us put together despite it being billed as a 'politicians question time', and Stephen Williams MP, who was meant to be speaking on 'Lib Dem Policy for the Future' but devoted most of his speech to Lloyd George. As an audience member said, it's a long way from Lloyd George to Nick "the pension? it's about £30 pw" Clegg. Stephen also claimed John Maynard Keynes (a Liberal) for the Lib Dems. Not sure how Keynesian £20bn of spending cuts is... or have they ditched that policy? It is so difficult keeping up.
Very lively debate. The NPC are, almost to a man and woman, against means-testing, whereas I believe that additional help (i.e. on top of the basic state pension, which is universal) should be directed towards those that need it most, but with a tapering off so as not to penalise people with modest savings or smallish private pensions. I accept this is bureaucratic and there's a problem with take-up; 1.8 million pensioners don't claim all they're entitled to, and I wish the NPC would do more to work with us on a take-up campaign. But I still think it's better than spreading the jam more thinly. Other issues included restoration of the earnings link, which is due in 2012, but that's not the panacea - at the moment, earnings growth is lower than inflation, so they'd actually be worse off. The NPC is campaigning for it to be whatever is higher, earnings growth or the RPI, which seems only fair to me.
Friday, 21 November 2008
So what do people think of Conservative plans to require new MPs to attend an induction course to teach them about science after the next election? Leaving aside the dubious precedents for this (i.e. the last scientist to lead the Tory Party, who may well have also been the first for all I know), is it actually possibly to learn anything useful about science in what would presumably be only a few hours?
I tend to rely the boffins on the Labour benches when I want something scientific explaining to me; take a bow, Dr Doug Naysmith and Dr Ian Gibson, who were both research scientists and certainly know their stuff. Howard Stoate MP is a 'proper', i.e. medical, doctor so he's useful too. Margaret Beckett used to be a metallurgist; not quite so useful.
By coincidence, we've just had an email through from Ian Gibson, asking MPs if they're "interested in attending an event on mathematics, consisting of seminars focusing on the relationship between policy making and mathematics". The topics covered are:
· The Mathematics of Transport - how mathematics is used to predict and organise traffic flows. How to optimise routes, traffic engineering etc.
· Computers that have not yet been built - Some computation problems that seem to be unapproachable by present day computers, and the possibility of a different computer logic that could attack them.
· Statistics - How to correctly interpret and use statistical data.
· Mathematics of Sport - How mathematics is used to design sport equipment, make models of athletes behaviour, and help them develop optimal motions.
· Tsunamis and Freak Waves - How to predict these natural disasters and develop efficient warning systems.
Again, I have no idea whether this would be useful or not. Do politicians need to know how to predict tsunamis? (Lembit of course is the man for predicting asteroid-earth collisions). The transport one might be quite useful in sorting out Temple Way roundabout, where the traffic lights completely defy logic
If you want the Chancellor to cut taxes, should it be income tax (basic or higher rate?), stamp duty, capital gains, corporation, or VAT? If you want more spending, what should be the priorities? Support for SMEs, capital spend on infrastructure projects/ construction/ house-building, or more money in people's pockets? And if so, whose pockets - pensioners, poor people, families with children?
And what about environmental taxes? Is there any place for them in a recession? (The Tories don't seem to think so).
Thursday, 20 November 2008
I'm now getting rather carried away by my award-winning status. This is just a test run, to see whether you all behave. There is a right answer, and you jolly well better choose it.
I was going to include a 'No, I want orange' option, but my family would just try to fix it.
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
I liked the way Nick Griffin described the leaking of the list as being in breach of the Human Rights Act... We know his party are great supporters of that piece of legislation - when it suits them.
Then lunch with, and chairing a session with, 'Bobby' Shapiro, which was really interesting. My favourite quote from him was when, asked if greed was to blame for the current financial crisis, he said "No. Greed is a constant". So it can't be blamed for extraordinary events.
Then met up with a constituent on a lobby of Parliament re Palestine. Good news about David Miliband taking a stance re goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements.
Then some votes on the Counter-Terrorism Bill interspersed with some time in the library checking emails, picking up my website award, chairing a meeting between South West MPs and the regional TUC, finding some MPs to sponsor my Ten Minute Rule Bill, and a quick chat in the tearoom with Tom Harris, whose very funny memo to staff will be featured in tomorrow's Independent, (so I'm told). Apparently journos are trying to smoke out other memos by using the FOI. Only applies to Ministers/ civil servants though, so no danger of my occasional memos to staff re not ending sentences with prepositions and other such crucial matters ending up in the tabloids. I hope.
Watching Newsnight now, making rather a mountain out of a John Sargeant shaped molehill. There will be questions in Parliament next, mark my words. Hazel Blears isn't quite saying she wouldn't go on the programme... and of course Peter Mandelson and Vince Cable have already expressed an interest. I'm still holding out for Loose Women.
Didn't see PMQs today - I was having lunch with Dr Robert Shapiro, former economic adviser to Clinton, Gore and Kerry (the other one) and now an adviser to the Obama transition team. By all accounts it was a massacre (PMQs, not lunch). Cameron is caught in a difficult position; he can't re-establish his credibility unless he talks about the economy. And he can't re-establish his credibility if he does - because (a) the Conservatives are all over the place on it, (b) he doesn't know very much about it, and (c) Gordon does.
In response to a journalist's question at the seminar which followed lunch, Dr Shapiro described Gordon's response to the economic downturn as 'superb'. He then slightly spoilt it by adding 'especially when compared to George Bush and Henry Paulson'.
Speaking of Kerry (the other one), I was visiting a friend at the weekend and he was wearing the 'Scary Kerry' T-shirt I'd bought him in Washington at the time of the last election. Kind of wish I'd kept that for myself now.
The overall winner of the Best MP's Website award was Derek Wyatt MP. Awards were also given for Best Design, to John Hutton MP, Best Accessibility, which went to Alan Johnson MP for the second year running, and Best Engagement. Modesty prevents me from revealing the winner of that one.
The real winner of the night was Andy Hudson, who designs not only Derek's website, (which also won Best Engagement last year) but also Jim Murphy's (which got a Highly Commended) and mine. Unfortunately his services are now being requested by many more MPs - including several who had the good sense to employ my former interns - so the battle for 2009 will be a tough one!
Thanks to whoever it was who somehow managed to put a stupid advert thing in the latest comments box, which I couldn't get rid of (although it might have been me, accidentally?). It means I have finally grappled manfully with technology and discovered how to have the sort of comments update I wanted in the first place. And in case you're wondering why the title... I kind of think that if Dostoevsky's man from the Underground was alive today, he'd be posting comments on blogs.
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
So far today I've spent rather a lot of time in the office, trying to shift paperwork. Popped over to No. 10 at 1pm for a chat with the PM around the Cabinet table, as one does. Six MPs there, obviously selected for their superior intellects and political insight. Plus me. (Thought I would say that before anyone else did; I know what you lot are like).
Gordon was delayed slightly because he had just been signing off the final stages of the Northern Ireland agreement. He said he felt the hand of history upon his shoulder... Actually, no, he didn't. But it is very good news. Not going to tell you what we talked about, but the thing about Gordon that never ceases to surprise me is that whatever point you bring up, no matter how obscure, he already knows about it. Tony Blair wasn't like that at all.
Since then I have had some soup and been into the Chamber for Communities and Local Government questions. Didn't get called. Bit of an uproar over gypsies, with a Tory saying that she entirely respected the rights of gypsies and travellers but what about the rights of decent, law-abiding, tax-paying people? (I paraphrase, but only slightly).
There seem to be discussions going on ahead of the Pre-Budget Report next Monday about cutting VAT to boost consumer spending and thus reflate the economy. Seems to me that the ideal solution would be to cut VAT on 'goods' but not on 'bads' - ie. on environmentally-friendly or healthy products, and also on essential items, but not on what could be termed 'useless tat'. So we'd encourage spending, but not mass consumption on a hugely wasteful scale, and achieve certain social objectives too (e.g. on obesity, fuel efficiency, etc).
But I suppose this would just end up being hugely bureaucratic, with companies falling over themselves to prove in court that cheesestrings, Poptarts and Sunny Delight are in the fact the cornerstone of a nutritious diet, and that the average household really cannot exist without Teasmades and electric carving knives and George Foreman grills.
Speaking of household items, I've had my oldest nephew staying with me on occasion lately. He was amazed when he saw me making toast for him. "You cook your toast?" He had never, at the age of 18, seen toast cooked under a grill before. He kept burning it when he tried, so I have now relented and spent £3.92 on a toaster from Sainsbury's for him. (How on earth can a toaster be £3.92? I almost spent £20 more just so that I didn't feel I was contributing to the disposable, throw-it-away-when-it-breaks as it no doubt will, society... but then that seemed a bit silly too.) I am happy to report that he toasted a muffin this morning without any problems.
We had an example yesterday of a supremely misjudged oral question.
At topical DCSF questions Ed Balls opened with a mini-statement about the Baby P case (which actually turned out to be not quite such a mini-statement, to the extent that the Speaker has now ordered him to come back and make a proper statement later in the week, which he can be questioned on). Obviously - and particularly given the rather unedifying scenes at last week's PMQs - the mood was serious and sombre, with only a few heckles from the Tories.
Then up pops Philip Hollobone, with this gem: "On another subject, the ocarina is an easy-to-play, easy-to-learn, easy-to-teach circular flute, and the centre of the UK's ocarina industry is in Kettering. My constituents, David and Christa Liggins, actively promote the use of this low-cost musical instrument in schools across the country. Would the Secretary of State agree to meet my constituents and me to discuss how this low-cost instrument might help the Government to teach more school pupils how to play musical instruments?"
I particularly like the 'on another subject'. I wish Ed had just come back and said, no, I've got rather more important things to do at the moment. But he didn't.
Monday, 17 November 2008
Various family members went to see them in Milton Keynes on Friday, and I am now the proud possessor of their CD, which I've been listening to in my car. They really are adorable, especially the one with the huge smile, who brings out the Madonna/ Angelina Jolie in me.
I've now just heard they're going to be performing for the Prime Minister next week, which is great news. I'm definitely going to try to cadge an invite. In Milton Keynes they tried to drag my brother-in-law up to dance; he churlishly refused, but I'm sure Gordon would be game. They have one song called "Things are Already Better", which I'm sure he'd love.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
I must admit, I do like the sound of Liam's memo to staff... I am so going to do one for my office. Which they will totally ignore.
Didn't actually mean to stop blogging for so long, just long enough to get Wednesday's debate out of the way. But turned out to be another busy week, quite a lot going on in the Chamber, and had to do some prep for a debate at Exeter University on Friday night.
As a backdrop to the debate, there were two pics of Gordon projected onto a screen. One was the classic long-haired shot from his university days; the other was this one here. Thing is, as I told the assembled students, I'm almost certain someone has just stuck his head onto that body. It's not him, is it?
Monday, 10 November 2008
Sunday, 9 November 2008
My reply is mostly going to be about prostitution because that's the reason why I thought the letter from the UKLP worthy of comment. (Incidentally, Bofl, who said this: "To kerry! How old are you? What on earth has 1984 got to do with prostitution in Bristol? This is a typical childish reaction from an immature politician.Any time somebody says something or does something that you do not like then you change the subject and say something straight from the playground." I suggest you go back and re-read my original post. And then ask someone smarter if you still don't understand).
For the record, I first read 1984 when I was about 13, and have re-read it since. Dostoevsky makes a similar point much better in The Devils (and yes, I know it was written many decades before Stalin came to power but it's a stunningly accurate prediction of how some of the ideas around in Russia then could be twisted to justify totalitarianism).
So - prostitution. As I have said on several occasions recently, I don't have much of a problem with consenting adults transacting sex behind closed doors. I do have a problem with:
a) On-street prostitution in residential areas, including soliciting outside schools, sex/ drugs litter in children's play areas, used condoms being thrown into people's gardens, residents being harassed by sex-workers and kerb-crawlers;
b) Drug addicts having to turn to prostitution to feed their habits, and being exploited, abused, raped - 95% of street sex workers are addicted to crack or heroin;
In east Bristol the main problem - or certainly the most visible problem - is on-street prostitution. And let's knock completely on the head the idea that these women are in any way exercising free will. They hate what they're doing, and they wouldn't do it if they weren't on drugs. How would you feel if your sisters, your mothers, your partners, your female friends chose to do it? Would you just shrug and say, 'it's their choice?' Sometimes of course they are coerced into it by a pimp or, more commonly, a dodgy drug-addict boyfriend; again, they're not exercising free will. I met a woman in the Commons the other day who had been transacted out within her family and their friends for sex since the age of 5. She had been through the whole gamut: raped, imprisoned, addicted, friends murdered... She was intelligent and articulate, but it had taken her until her mid-30s to break free.
I've been out on patrol several times with local police in the parts of Bristol where prostitution is a problem (St. Pauls, Easton, Fishponds Road). I have also had long discussions with police officers, the One25 Project, the Vice Liaison Officer, etc, and organised a public meeting with a Home Office Minister so local residents could tell him just what they were having to put up with. I've met sex-workers and kerb-crawlers. So any views I might express on this issue are based on what you might call 'research'.
Someone complained that the All-Party Group on Prostitution and the Sex Trade seems to have made up its mind before it begins its ‘investigation’. It has been set up with a particular purpose in mind, to work with the Home Office on measures to reduce prostitution. That’s what APPGS are, they’re not Select Committees, which conduct investigations and reach conclusions at the end. So, for example, I set up the APPG on Somaliland to campaign for recognition of Somaliland as an independent state, not to consider whether recognition was warranted (I’d already concluded that it was), and I set up the APPG on Credit Unions to liaise with the Government over new credit union legislation. (I am tempted to digress here into a discussion of the remit of the APPG on Cheese and whether it should really be operating from the starting premise that cheese is a good thing… but I suspect I’ve got the wrong audience on this occasion).
If someone wants to set up an APPG for the legalisation of prostitution or drugs or whatever, they’re entirely free to do so. But that’s not the purpose of this particular group. I don’t have fixed views as to the changes in law we need and I am completely realistic as to the prospects of ever eliminating prostitution, but if we can prevent girls, women and young men from being caught up in that sordid world, then I believe we should.
My reference to BMW drivers stems directly from my trips out with the vice squad. I’ve seen BMWs, a Mercedes, 4-wheel drives…. These are men on their way home from work or the pub, taking a detour before they go home to their wives. They’re usually white men, and they’re often in company cars (so the police, who get their numbers and notify their bosses, tell me). So whoever it was who referred to the only BMWs in St Pauls being driven by black criminals (I paraphrase) - you're wrong.The police have had some success. They’ve virtually eliminated daylight soliciting outside schools, and the number of women working the streets has gone down from c.300 to c.100.
You say I/ the Government should be doing more. So what do you suggest?
* The police’s main tool is anti-social behaviour legislation – but don’t approve of that do you? Or the tougher laws that are being considered now.
* The police have told me they’d be helped enormously by having a CCTV camera with number plate recognition installed along Fishponds Road – but you don’t approve of that either, do you?
* When prostitutes are attacked by violent clients, the DNA database could help identify their attackers – but you’re against that too….
I’ve lobbied, successfully, for more drugs treatment funding for Bristol, as we’ve historically been under-funded. And I’m currently lobbying for more vice squad officers to be deployed, as well as CCTV. I’m confident that in doing so I represent the views of the vast majority of my constituents living in affected areas; I sent out a survey, and got some very good feedback; I've been out campaigning in the area, talking to residents; and the meeting with the Home Office Minister was packed. (Person from Sheffield - how about contacting your own MPs to discuss these issues? I'm sure they'd be happy to meet you).
On the more general issue of libertarianism. I just don’t agree with the people who have posted on here. It’s a fundamental philosophical difference. I think the State has a significant role to play in tackling some of the serious problems facing this country, whether it be our security, crime, public health, the economy… I don’t think ‘freedom’ is sacrosanct if by that you mean the freedom to oppress, exploit, abuse, harm others. I think it’s the role of Government to protect people from oppression, exploitation, abuse and harm. I could point you to several other George Orwell books that make this case better than I ever could.
As for spending a few days in Miami for the US election campaign… I’ve already made clear on here that I paid for it myself. Taking an interest in overseas politics is part of my job. If you look at the main issues my constituents write to me about – climate change, energy policy, international development, foreign policy – I think you’ll find they were pretty keen to see Obama elected too!
I missed three days in Parliament; try looking on theyworkforyou to see how that compares with other MPs’ attendance. I was in the office every night till 10pm the week before I went away, kept in touch with staff while I was there, and after flying back through the night without sleep on Thursday I went into the constituency office to sign my post, deal with emails and then attend a meeting that went on till 9pm. (During the ten week summer recess by the way, I took one week, and one weekend off).
Today is Sunday… So far I’ve been at the Remembrance Day ceremony in Bristol, met a couple of Labour activists for lunch to discuss some future events, made the three hour journey from home to London as I’ve got an early start tomorrow (and worked on the train), replied to comments on this blog… Next I’m going to look at my emails. Tomorrow I will be in Parliament till 11pm or so; Tuesday, ditto. So I’m not prepared to take any criticism from ignorant people on here as to how much effort I put into this job.
Final two points – if you don’t like what this Government is doing, there will be an election in the next 18 months or so, and you can vote against us (without waiting in line in the pouring rain for up to 10 hours, as they had to in Florida). And Old Holborn, you’re just a vile racist and that’s why I’m not replying to you.
Final, final point - I've got work to do this evening, and I don't want to be distracted/ stressed out by nasty comments coming through. So I've disabled comments. I think I've given you more than enough by way of a response, and don't intend to continue the conversation.
Friday, 7 November 2008
Have been catching up with other people's blogs from while I was away. Tom Harris has been sent a copy of 1984 in the post. So have I, but with a slightly different covering note. (No contact name, no signature, very brave of them). Whereas Tom got a slip saying "Young man, This is a reminder that this book, contrary to what your leader might think, is NOT an instruction manual, but a warning. REMEMBER - WE are YOUR masters." I got a letter:
I have been asked to send you this by the LPUK [Libertarian Party UK].
We presume you have read it in the past but we feel our country might benefit if you read it again - this time understanding that it was intended as a warning to society and not an instruction manual for Government.
We would be grateful if you would consider the impact of legislation on individual freedom before sponsoring or voting for any more laws to prohibit things. Laws to criminalise prostitution would fall into this category.
Anyway, we hope you enjoy the book."
I think I know what, if he was writing 'Down and Out in St Pauls and Easton', George Orwell would have made of businessmen in BMWs paying drug-addicted teenagers £20 a time for sex on their way home from work. Freedom? For who?
Busy couple of weeks coming up. Have been successful in getting an adjournment debate next Weds on the welfare of children with a parent or parents in prison, which I've been planning for some time. And have also succeeded in getting a slot for a ten minute rule Bill on November 25th, provisionally titled Children (Protection of Privacy) Bill. It's about the use of children in the media, e.g. in reality TV shows (Supernanny, House of Tiny Tearaways), documentaries (The Eight Year Old Anorexic), and the likes of the Jeremy Kyle show (DNA test results live on air). More about that later.
Also very excited to have been asked to host a roundtable discussion with Robert Shapiro, former economic adviser to Clinton. And since I said yes, he's been asked to join the Obama team too. So really looking forward to that.