Sunday, 25 May 2008

Thoughts on Crewe

I'm at Gatwick airport at an internet terminal at the moment, so probably not the ideal circumstances for imparting my thoughts on the future of the Labour Party, but here goes.

It's clear - and kind of stating the obvious - that the Crewe result was about the fact that many people simply don't feel that well off at the moment. (The media would like it to be about Gordon Brown's leadership, as that lends itself far more easily to juicy gossip trading in Commons' bars, unattributed briefings, and dashed-off comment pieces; analysing policies is far more like hard work, and doesn't sell nearly as many papers).

We know voters are being hit by high petrol prices, rising food prices, high utility bills. Some are also concerned about the recent dip in house prices. It's no good telling them that they're still benefiting from comparatively low interest rates, low inflation, high employment - or to recite the mantra of Labour achievements since 1997, all designed to help people on low or moderate incomes (minimum wage, tax credits, record rises in child benefit, winter fuel payments, pensions credit, etc, etc).Nor is it the right time to draw to voters' attention what a Labour Government has done to rescue dilapidated public services, particularly health and education, although what's happening on that front in my constituency is phenomenal and we will go into the next election no doubt with leaflets adorned with pictures of brand new schools and health centres.

So what can we do about it? The simplest answer would be to say: put more money into people's pockets. Which we did with the Chancellor's announcement the week before last, about extra money for all basic rate tax payers. The Prime Minister is also taking an international lead in discussions with OPEC, trying to bring down oil prices, and similar discussions are taking place with the supermarkets... We could stop the fuel duty escalator kicking in in the autumn, having already delayed it once - or even reduce petrol taxes further, but is that the right path to go down, environmentally?

My money is running out, just as I was about to say something profound.... (!) so have to log off now!

From Crewe to Dhaka

Going to be away for the next week, which is half-term recess. First Bangladesh, looking at health projects and also meeting Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the so-called "world banker to the poor"; I'm really looking forward to that. Then I'm in Jordan for a conference for a couple of days. I love Jordan, it's absolutely stunning. I have one free day before the conference, which is in Amman, so going to head to the Dead Sea.

I was in Crewe on Thursday, polling day. The Labour vote was pretty solid in the patch I was working, and we actually polled more votes overall than expected - but the Tory turnout was phenomenal and made all the difference. I was at the wedding today, of Anna (PLP staffer) and Jonathan (ex-No.10, now a spad in the Lords). Only two other MPs there - Ed Miliband, and Steve McCabe, who ran the Crewe campaign. Cue jokes during the speeches that some of the men present could be said to be dressed rather like 'toffs'.

As for the fall-out from the Labour defeat, which I suspect will be all over Sunday's papers, all I will say at the moment is that I can't see any criteria under which Lord Desai could be regarded as 'a senior Labour figure', unless it simply means he's been around a long time. (Does the media ever in these circumstances describe someone as a junior MP? An obscure MP? An MP who's been on the backbenches for the past 30 years and no-one's ever heard of him? An MP who has never said anything of interest during his entire parliamentary career but is now seizing his chance of 15 minutes of fame? Those are usually the kind of people who come forward at times like this). Journos will always be able to find someone to call for heads to roll; it doesn't mean that's the view of a majority - or even of a significant minority - of Labour parliamentarians. I don't believe it is, certainly not from the conversations I've had since Thursday.

Not sure if I'll have time to blog when I'm away; will see.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Voting tonight

Have just got back from the Chamber, sitting in on some of the debate about the abortion time limit. We start voting at 10.11 and there could be as many as 10 votes, which would take us up to nearly 1am. (I had to get up at 5.45am today, after about 5 hours sleep; this is not good). Listened to Nadine Dorries' speech. Some of it was undeniably moving, when she talked about her experience as a nurse assisting with botched late terminations, conjuring up an image of holding a baby in her arms as it gasped for breath and then died. It would be quite easy to be swayed by such emotive arguments.

But we all believe it would be better if there were far fewer abortions carried out, far fewer late terminations, far fewer unwanted pregnancies in the first place. None of us regards it as a casual decision, a mere technical procedure... I was going to say more, but Anne Widdecombe is being very shrill and I'm having trouble concentrating. And the first vote is about to happen.


I popped into No. 10 today for a brief visit with my 14 year old nephew who is doing work experience with me. He was impressed when I said the PM was probably inside the building somewhere. He said "What? Working? Or just jamming?" I had to tell him that I don't think Gordon jams very often, but he was insistent - "if he's Prime Minister, why doesn't he just throw everyone else out of the house so he can just jam all day?" I can see it might be tempting sometimes...

Ask and ye shall receive

Went down to Bristol this morning with Rosie Winterton, the Transport Minister, for the announcement that we're finally getting the £42m from the DfT for the Greater Bristol Bus Network. This means another 10 showcase bus routes (although I'm told the preferred terminology now is 'integrated transport corridors' - can't see it catching on somehow).

I was asked by the West of England Partnership a month or so ago to raise this with Rosie, as they'd been waiting for a long time for confirmation they were going to get the cash, and didn't know why it was being held up. So I did, in the Local Transport Bill committee; she promised she'd look into it as soon as the Committee was over and 10 days later, the cheque's in the post!

When Rosie moved to Transport from Health, where I was her PPS, I told her I couldn't join her at her new department because then I wouldn't be able to lobby her on transport issues. That decision has obviously paid off!

Paul Smith (Labour PPC) and I also met Justin Davies, the new MD of First Bus at the event. Had a good, albeit brief, chat with him about what he could do to improve performance. I asked about smart cards (he sees the benefits but there are some technical/ cost issues), and he also talked about driver recruitment, which is being stepped up. I also asked about the prevalence of the 'Sorry Not In Service' buses; as I suspected, it's because my office is near the depot, but he accepted that it doesn't look good when customers are stuck at bus stops and they see buses sail past. He seems on the ball, and keen to improve things - as they say, "things can only get better"!

Monday, 19 May 2008

Stem cell research

On a related point (to the last post) I was pleased to see Gordon Brown's piece in the Observer describe stem cell research as "an inherently moral endeavour" - I couldn't agree more.

The Commons has just voted fairly convincingly to allow hybrid-embryo research. I'm now back in the office, and by coincidence watching a rather disturbing documentary on Channel 4 about Christian fundamentalists in Bristol and east London. The church in Bristol is in my constituency. They write to me a lot.

The 20 or 24 week limit debate

Interesting exchange of views between two Tory MPs over the abortion time limit, which the Commons is voting on tomorrow. Mark Pritchard emailed all MPs, drawing their attention to a Sunday Telegraph article from a doctor who refuses to perform late abortions. (I can't find the article on the ST site now, and it's too long to reproduce in full). This provoked the following response from Robert Key, which is interesting in that it puts the case for retaining the 24 week limit from a Christian viewpoint.

Hello, Mark. Yes – I saw this piece. But what’s your point, please? In terms of the debate on the upper limit for termination of pregnancy, the views of Dr Argent are no more significant than your views or mine. I could quote the Gynaecologist I met last week who performs late abortions, or the woman with three children with whom I discussed her decision to have a late abortion. As it happens, I do have strong religious views (Christian) and one abortion is one too many for me and I want very much indeed to reduce the tragically high number of abortions in our country – over 90% of which take place in the first twelve weeks. As a Christian I do not see it as virtuous to punish or take revenge on the women who face late abortions – for that is how it looks to a great many of them. Why take it out on the women who face the most difficult decisions in the most vulnerable circumstances? As one clinician put it to me last week, “many of these women are like a train crash – everything in their lives has gone wrong at once”. Or do you think we should punish those “wicked gals” who play fast and loose with their bodies and need to be forced to have their babies come what may? Fast and loose at 20 weeks? Get real, Mark!

So as a Christian, I wish to do all I can to prevent unwanted pregnancies – proper sex and responsibility education in schools, not just the approximate mechanics of sex. Plus adequate, workable provision of contraceptive and health education resources instead of the patchy teaching in our schools today. Oh, and by the way, who is most likely to be opposed to sex education in schools? The same people that want to lower the upper limit on abortion!

As a Conservative, I object to the State telling a woman (or a man) what she may or may not do with her sexuality. I notice neither you nor Dr Argent make any mention of the responsibility of the men who cause the women to get pregnant. No state intervention necessary for us, then! Whatever a Member of Parliament, a Minister, or a clinician may think about abortion, the very bottom line is that it is an individual human being, made in God’s image, who happens to be a woman, who must decide whether or not to continue with her pregnancy. In the interests of the foetus and in the public interest the State may surely take a view, based on the evidence, of where to draw a line. But that view should certainly not be taken, as Dr Argent argues, on the level of personal revulsion (surely shared by most of us) at what is a comparatively rare procedure. Fair comment, but not a reliable moral or ethical guide.

Finally, if we are trading the merits or otherwise of newspaper articles, I prefer Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times. “For the most part MPs should stop meddling in how people choose to plan and protect their families. They have enough trouble with their own”.

Good wishes from Robert.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

By-election in Bristol?

No, not me, I'm not intending to go anywhere just yet.

People in Bristol are losing patience with a certain councillor, who was re-elected in May 2006 but has not quite been giving her voters the hands-on attention they expect and deserve. In fact, she's now living in the USA. The Lib Dems had to fly her in for the last but one council meeting at their own expense as she'd otherwise have fallen foul of the rule that says that if a councillor fails to attend a meeting for six months, they'll be removed from office. Are they going to keep this up until 2010 when she's due for re-election?

Saturday, 17 May 2008


I was pleased to hear the announcement this week that the Government is to extend the availability of free legal representation at county courts for people who are at risk of having their houses repossessed. I used to work for a small firm of solicitors, who acted as agents in the county courts for the building societies seeking possession orders. This was during the recession of the late 1980s, when repossessions rocketed.

I was based in Luton at the time, which was the negative equity capital of the UK. This was partly because of the large number of starter homes in the town, commissioned by the Tories when they ran the Council, to attract first-time buyers from out of town who wanted somewhere within an easy commute to London and who were more likely to vote Conservative than Luton's traditional car workers. Banks and building societies were offering 100% mortgages, with additional 'cash back' offers. As interest rates rose, and the recession started hitting jobs in the service sector, the new homeowners founded themselves financially over-extended and unable to meet their mortgage payments.

It was my job to handle the court hearings, sometimes at the rate of 10 a day. The homeowners didn't always turn up, but when they did I'd explain to them that although the building society was seeking possession in 30 days, and I would therefore have to go in and ask for that, the court would suspend the order if they made an offer to clear the arrears over a period of time. Very few of the cases ended in actual warrants for possession; the county court registrars understood that people were facing a tough time and I suspect thought the building societies were more than a little to blame for having made the loans in the first place.

The situation now is nowhere near as bad as it was in the late 1980s/ early 1990s, but it's good that the Government is taking early steps to help people keep a roof over their heads.

No match for their untamed wit

Paul Weller in the New Statesman expressing his opinion of a certain fan...

What is the point of (electronic) tagging - the sequel

As I said in an earlier post, I've got a 73 year old constituent, no previous convictions except a speeding offence, who's been given a 12 month driving ban and a 3 month curfew, with electronic tagging, after failing to report an accident. He stopped at the scene, and wasn't responsible for the accident, so it seems pretty draconian. On Friday I tabled a series of parliamentary questions, to try to find out more about when tagging is used for road traffic offences, and asking for a breakdown between drink-driving offences, driving whilst disqualified and other RTA offences. (It seems to me that my constituent must have been sentenced on the suspicion that he'd been drink driving, but that seems rather a speculative approach to sentencing!)

I now discover from the Indy diary that Paul Staines (aka the blogger Guido Fawkes) has been handed a 3 year driving ban, with an electronic tag & 3 month curfew for a drink driving conviction, & was told he was a ‘danger to the public’. In the unlikely event Mr Staines is reading this, can I assure him - my PQs were nothing whatsoever to do with you. (But you might like to look at the answers!)

Assuming the Indy article is accurate (a lawyer writes), then it seems that Mr Staines has a number of previous convictions for alcohol-related offences and this was his second drink-driving offence within a few years. Hence the 3 year ban. I can see the point of tagging and a curfew in these circumstances, as the District Judge clearly felt that it was necessary to stop him going out drinking and driving again. In my days working at a magistrates court (21 years ago - blimey!) someone with a similar record might well have got a custodial sentence. But my constituent's case seems very different.

P.S. And here's a slightly different account of the same incident, also from the Indy diary column. Not exactly racked with remorse, is he?

David gets knitting

This is from a recent column by David Drew, MP for Stroud, in his local paper:

OVER the last few weeks friends of mine have been furiously knitting baby hats. In my case it has been more a case of painfully knitting one. This is in direct response to a plea by a colleague of mine, Kerry McCarthy the MP for Bristol East who emailed me asking me to take part in the Save the Children's Knit Kit campaign, encouraging me to Knit A Hat To Save A Life.

This will reach its culmination at a presentation on May 19 in Parliament when I hope to be able to hand over 50 different baby hats at least one of which I will be responsible for. In having a go, I quickly realised how poor my skillbase is, but I got a bit of support from my wife, my neighbour and my mother-in-law. I hope from some of you too might still join in by getting details from the Save the Children.

You can down load the Hat Pattern from the Save the Children website by going through the link What can you do' or if you wish pop into my office in 5a Lansdown and you can pick up a copy. I would like to take up to Westminster as many hats as possible.

Doing a bit of research tells me that the hat that I knitted (hopefully without too many holes!) can save a life. About half of the babies born in Tibet suffer from hypothermia during their first week of life. They are much more likely to catch pneumonia which still kills about 2 million children every year. It only takes two minutes for a wet newborn baby to lose a dangerous two degrees in body temperature and most of that is lost through their head. Babies in both hot and cold climates are at risk. I remember when my younger son was born in Stroud Maternity Hospital, he was two weeks early and fairly small and although we had what we thought were all the things he needed he was cold despite being a warm May. The midwives at Stroud Maternity gave us a white hand knitted hat to keep him warm and happy in his first few days.

We often think that making things better can only be achieved by big actions involving lots of money. I believe it is the small actions that add up and do the most good. That's why I'm asking you to help. Please get knitting and bring your finished hats to my office so we can all make a real difference to someone who really matters - a new born baby.

I'll be doing my bit at Get Knitted in Brislington (Europe's biggest knitting shop) on June 7th, at one of their regular Knit and Natter sessions. And no, I can't knit - but I'm seeing my mother tomorrow (Happy Birthday Mum!) and although she doesn't know it yet, she's going to be teaching me!

He who pays the piper...

Just in case you haven't spotted this story about business donors funding the Tory shadow cabinet. Grant Shapps (Tory housing spokesman) "declined to comment on why five of his six backers were connected with his brief". Kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it?

Friday, 16 May 2008

Buying babies

I don't usually like drawing attention to Daily Mail stories like this - about a Nigerian woman who has been convicted of buying a baby to qualify for a council house in Britain. Usually such stories are grossly exaggerated or taken out of context to promote a certain political agenda and stoke up certain prejudices (immigrants taking our housing, defrauding our welfare system, etc). But this caught my eye for a couple of reasons.

One is that the woman was actually convicted, so it's not one of those urban myths (like Somalis in Bristol being given free cars by the Council, and Poles being given free mobiles so they don't get homesick) and not a mountain being made out of a molehill. The other is that when I was in Uganda I was told that there was a real concern about child-trafficking in northern Uganda, where many people live in camps for internally-displaced people, and that one of the main motives for trafficking was 'to get a council house in Britain'; (the others were sex-trafficking and child slave labour). It's horrendous if this is happening, and very difficult to prove.

It is common within certain African communities or informal adoptions of children to take place, for example, where a child has been left orphaned. There is often no documentation - particularly if they come from a country like Somalia, where there is virtually no bureaucracy in place - and DNA tests are irrelevant. So there is no way of telling if the adoption is genuine, or whether the children are being used.

The article quotes someone from the Ecpat UK pressure group, which campaigns for tougher laws against child traffickers, saying: "We are seeing increasing evidence that children are being trafficked into Britain for benefit fraud. They arrive from all over the world and our concern is what happens when they have served their purpose." The article doesn't say what happened to the child; presumable he's been taken into care, as his original parents are untraceable. I hope they manage to find him a good home in Britain.

Men reading books

At the relaunch of Air Balloon's after school club today, I saw on the wall a photo-montage of men sitting reading with children; I was quite struck by the photos, some of which were quite touching, showing what were obviously quite tough, working-class men engrossed in children's story books with young pupils. Turns out that the headmaster had had the bright idea of inviting fathers, grandfathers and other male relatives into the school to encourage boys to read more. More than 100 men turned up which is really impressive. I think it's something which ought to be replicated in schools across Bristol.

Two 'g's in blogging

That's a reference to the link to my blog on my main website, which has now been corrected!

My website stats are steadily rising, which is good - we're on track to hit the 30,000 mark this month. Obviously nowhere near Mad Nad's 250,000 hits per month, but I'm not sure I want to go down the path that's required to hit those kind of figures. I have no idea who most of these people are, or why viewing stats can vary from below 500 to over 3000 on consecutive days - it doesn't seem to be linked to how often I post things - but it's good.

We're currently refreshing a lot of the content - e.g. linking news stories to issues pages, adding more links to outside organisations, and generally freshening it up a bit. And I will get round to doing the 'Local Heroes' page one day very soon! The idea is to have whatever the opposite of a rogues' gallery is, of amazing people who have done good works in east Bristol and made a real contribution to the local community. First up is going to be Reg Gregory, a wonderful man who must be 84 by now, and was instrumental in bringing the Wellspring Healthy Living Centre into being (as well as loads of other things). Other candidates include Richard and Joyce Smith, who persevered for years in their campaign to save Arnos Vale cemetery - shame I couldn't be there for the cutting of the turf ceremony this week. It's an amazing place.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Just a list of things to do tomorrow...

I don't know why I always end up staying up to watch 'This Week' on a Thursday, when I've arrived home late from London and I've got a really busy day to follow and, more to the point, it's rubbish (Bruce Forsyth talking about US politics? Lord Levy posing on a tennis court? Andrew Neil just being Andrew Neil?)

My first appointment tomorrow is at Trinity Road police station, to talk to an officer about vice and drugs. Then it's Refugee Action, to talk about Government policy on asylum seekers. Then the office, to sign letters and to take a scheduled phone call from the Department of Health. Then I''m off to the brand new Bristol Metropolitan school (formerly Whitefield Fishponds) - I'm really looking forward to that as I've visited a number of times when building was in progress and I've heard that the new school is phenomenal. After that it's the launch of an after school club at Air Balloon school. Then it's the second meeting of the fledging Somali forum in Barton Hill. And then our monthly Labour Party meeting (and I've just realised I haven't written my GC report to members and won't have time to do it tomorrow... oh dear).

Lord Levy is now talking about the 10p tax rate. I'm off to bed.

New poll on website

Seeing as it now looks like Labour will be running the Council for the next year, what do you want them to do? I've given five options (because I'm only allowed five): better public transport; tackling crime and anti-social behaviour; making Bristol the 'green' capital of Britain; improving school standards; or more affordable housing. No doubt it will suddenly occur to me at 4 in the morning that I have missed out something really, really obvious. (Social services? Oh dear). Health services I've left out because that's not really a Council responsibility. I won't make a prediction because I'm sure people will then vote for something else just to prove me wrong, but I have a fair idea what will come out on top.

What is the point of (electronic) tagging?

Some of you may have read in the BEP about the somewhat bizarre case of Peter Ogden, the 73 year old man who has been electronically tagged and subjected to a curfew after being convicted of failing to report a road traffic accident. He has also been banned from driving for a year. Leaving aside whether or not Mr Ogden was guilty of that offence (his account of the incident is in the BEP article), the question remains: does the punishment fit the crime?

I spoke to a journalist from ITV today, before appearing on their evening news programme. She had asked for a briefing from the Ministry of Justice on the use of tagging. They described electronic monitoring as "a credible alternative to custody" which can "introduce regularity into often chaotic lifestyles" and "disrupt the pattern of offending behaviour".

I have no problem with that: if, for example, you have young criminals who prowl the streets at night, breaking into houses or stealing cars, or drunks who are constantly picking fights in pubs and carrying out assaults, a curfew monitored by electronic tagging could be an effective way of dealing with them rather than sending them to prison. It protects the public, eases the burden on the prison population, and reduces the likelihood of them reoffending (at least until the tagging is over).

But Mr Ogden is not a career criminal, or a persistent offender, or a neighbourhood nuisance. His only previous conviction is for a speeding offence. There is no suggestion that he caused the accident through dangerous or even careless driving (the woman was hit first by another car, and that driver has not been prosecuted). And yet he is now being confined to his home between the hours of 4pm and 11pm, with an electronic tagging device attached to his leg. I can't see what purpose is being served by this at all.

I've briefly spoken about this to a Home Office minister, just in passing, and will be writing to Jack Straw to seek his views on the appropriateness of using electronic tagging in such circumstances. I have also tabled a written parliamentary question to see if I can find out how often tagging has been used when people have only been convicted of road traffic offences. I can see it might be justified in the case of a repeat drink driver, or someone who has been convicted of driving whilst disqualified, as an alternative to imprisonment, but as far as I am aware (and it's been 20 years since I worked at a magistrates court, processing hundreds of traffic offences) failing to report an accident isn't even an imprisonable offence. (Although I suppose it must be now, if they can impose an alternative to custody as a sentence). It's very strange.

First Group are doing rather well

Latest profits from First Group. Their annual operating profits in the year to March 31 were up 39 per cent on a year earlier. In the UK business, passenger revenues grew five per cent last year, while operating profits rose 18.4 per cent to £122m. So they're either charging passengers 5% more or have got 5% more passengers or a combination of both - but presumably spending less on the service? How else could you explain the rise in profits? "Efficiency savings"?

I'm meeting the new MD of First Bus next Friday. I've spoke to him on the phone, and think he may just be someone who is prepared to take complaints seriously and actually do something to improve the service - but we'll see. (Incidentally, it was noteable that of the MPs on the Local Transport Bill committee, at least four of us on the Labour side had bus services run by First - and my colleagues from Manchester and Sheffield were none too impressed with the service either). Now that the Bill committee is over I'm hoping that Rosie Winterton will get round to looking at the Greater Bristol Bus Network bid, and give us the £42m we've been waiting for - I'll keep chasing!

Postscript on "incapable" Lib Dems

Cllr Woodman's defence of his party's refusal to take control of Bristol City Council (apart from the fact they're "incapable" of running the city) is that the Tories would not have actually supported any of their policies, so they wouldn't have been able to get their programme through. But everyone knows that the majority of decisions these days are taken by the Council Executive, and that very few decisions go to full Council. For example, the potholes in the road they are so fond of pointing at on their leaflets - doesn't take a full Council vote to get them fixed!

OK, they might have struggled to get a budget through, but as supporters of proportional representation, which tends to lead to coalition government or minority rule, surely they accept that doing deals with other parties and achieving a consensus is part and parcel of politics?

Lib Dems "weak and ineffectual" (says a Lib Dem councillor)

Some extracts from Lib Dem councillor Alex Woodman's blog:

He says that if the Lib Dems had taken control they would have been “incapable of actually running the city”... He goes on to say "we feel that at the moment what Bristol needs is stability, not another change which would have left the city with a weak and ineffectual administration".

Actually I've just checked this against his blog, and it now refers to "an unsupported administration" - but I have it on good authority that's not what it said originally!

Cllr Woodman also works for Stephen Williams MP.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

And what are the Tories playing at?

Quick postscript on yesterday's council meeting. The Tories voted against Labour's Helen Holland continuing as council leader, but then, acccording to the BEP: [Tory leader] Mr Eddy - who denied he had been under pressure from David Cameron and Conservative Central Office to distance himself from Labour - said afterwards: "It was the best result for Bristol."We have seen that the Liberal Democrats are not up to the leadership of this city."

And the Lib Dems' Barbara Janke said: "Another political shake-up at the top after barely a year, with no elections taking place, could make the city council a laughing stock." Let me get this right - she's saying that if the Lib Dems took back control...?

What exactly are the Lib Dems for?

So at yesterday's council meeting, it went like this. The Tories voted for a Lib Dem administration. The Lib Dems abstained - i.e. they didn't vote for themselves! Labour are therefore still running the show.

The Lib Dems could have taken control, could have replaced the Labour administration they so roundly criticise, could have seized their moment - but they turned it down. Obviously they're far happier carping from the sidelines than they are being in a position where they might actually be held to account for their actions (as with the debacle over the Home Care workers last year). Surely being in electoral politics is about wanting to gain power so that you can actually implement your party's policies (although hang on, this is the Lib Dems we're talking about - do they have any?) Are our local Lib Dems just there to complain to the council about holes in the road and litter not being picked up, or do they have a broader vision for regenerating our city and improving council services? If they do - why did they turn down the chance to do something about it?

Seems to me that if the Lib Dems don't think they're up to running the council, don't have the confidence in their own ability to take control, they're going to have a hard job next year convincing the voters they should be given another chance.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Burma debate tomorrow

The Tories have called an opposition day debate on Burma for tomorrow. They had said they were going to do it on pensioner poverty - and the House of Commons library went to the trouble of preparing a brief and now don't have time to do one on Burma - but that's their usual ploy, so that the Government benches don't have as much time to prepare.

Cameron has of course issued an ultimatum, saying that aid drops should begin if the situation hadn't improved by Tuesday (today). Nothing of course to do with Prime Minister's Questions being on Wednesday, is it David? Their tactic is to try to portray the Government as 'dithering' over the question of aid drops - but the fact is that Save the Children, Oxfam and the World Food Programme have all said that aid drops are the least effective way of delivering aid, and support the UK Government's stance on this. Aid drops work best when there is a delivery network on the ground - which there obviously isn't in Burma - and there's also the question of how the Burmese regime would react if aid drops began - would they stop all other aid getting through? So it's not as simple as it sounds.

Also worth remembering these figures:
  • UK Government aid to Burma in 1992 - £50,000;
  • UK Government aid to Burma in 1997 - £250,000;
  • UK Government aid to Burma now (pre-cyclone) - £18 million.

Scientists versus moralists?

The Second Reading debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill yesterday was very high quality; as the cliche goes, Parliament is at its best on occasions like this. Brian Iddon and Ian Gibson were particularly good on the benefits of allowing scientific research on admixed embryos. Someone - possibly Brian or Ian - said that they strongly objected to the debate being characterised as being between those who supported scientific progress and those who had 'ethical' concerns. They said, quite rightly I believe, that support for the scientists is also very much an ethical position, as it is based on the strongly-held belief that we should be doing what we can to reduce human suffering and to find cures for terminal or chronic diseases. Indeed, some might say that it is unethical for people of strong religious belief to deny others the opportunity to benefit from such scientific progress because it conflicts with their own deeply-held faith. From what I heard of the debate yesterday, a number of MPs questioned whether the research would be of real scientific benefit, but everyone who did so was speaking from a strongly Christian perspective, rather than from a scientific viewpoint. (For perhaps the most extreme example of this, Iris Robinson's contribution is worth a look).

Photos on ballot papers

A long time ago I agreed (in retrospect, probably not very wisely) to take part in some research being conducted by the University of Strathclyde into whether putting photos of candidates on ballot papers would make any difference to the way voters voted. Not sure on what basis I was selected, but other participants included Roger Berry, Chris Bryant, Sir Paul Beresford, James Gray, Paddy Tipping, Claire Curtis-Thomas, Joan Whalley and Martin Linton - so I guess it was just a random selection of people who look completely different to each other (and who the general British public haven't heard of!). The results are about to be unveiled at a parliamentary seminar on 4th June. Not sure how any of us will feel when it's revealed that the 64% of people who were planning on voting for us before they saw the photos has now dwindled to a mere 14%!

They don't seem to have included any BME MPs, which would have made the experiment more interesting: if, for example, they'd included Dawn Butler or David Lammy, would it have made much, or any, difference when the voters discovered they were black? Not so easy to do with MPs of Asian origin, as their names tend to give it away. Of course Kerry could be a man's name; many people assume so, judging from the correspondence I receive. I wonder if that turns out to be a factor? Interesting, but not sure it's a path we want to follow here in the UK.

Tories jump ship

Reliable rumour has it that at tonight's Bristol City Council AGM the Tories will back a Liberal Democrat adminstration. They're apparently doing this because instructions have gone out from Central Office for them to side with the Lib Dems whenever there's a hung council - presumably so as to pave the way for a Lib-Con pact after the next General Election. So much for all Cameron's talk local democracy!

Monday, 12 May 2008

Life begins at...?

Tomorrow - or, rather, later today (why am I still up?) - we have the Second Reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, with free votes the following week on some of the crucial issues. Having belatedly realised what the time is (3am!), I won't say too much about it now, but it's going to be an interesting week.

For the record, I'm with the scientists on the 'admixed embryos' issue; support the removal of the 'need for a father' provision re IVF treatment (replaced by a reference to parenting); and don't support the reduction of the abortion time limit from 24 to 20 weeks (and will probably say more on that before the week is out). The latter isn't actually in the Bill, but will be introduced by way of amendment. There's also likely to be an amendment removing the requirement for two doctors to give permission before a woman can have a termination, which I'll be backing if it comes to a vote.

It's at moments like this that it becomes apparent just how many Catholics there are within the Labour ranks; it's the Celtic thing I suppose. Most people assume I'm a lapsed Catholic, but I was actually brought up as a Baptist, or at least was packed off to Sunday school every week along with my sisters so my mother could get some peace and quiet. (I'm writing that because I know she'll be reading this - hi Mum!)

The dividing line on the abortion issue - and also on admixed or hybrid embryos - very much depends on whether you believe life starts at conception or at birth (or at least when life would be sustainable outside the womb). Not sure that's something that will be resolved by the political debate we'll be having over the next few weeks, but I suppose there must be some undecideds amongst us.

"If you read my book"...

Today's media has been verging on the ridiculous in the prominence and credibility they give to what are little more than footnotes in the various biographies that are being hawked around at the moment. (How many times did Lord Levy drop in 'As I say in my book' during his TV interview today?)

On the subject of Lord L's latest intervention - Gordon, to my recollection, didn't run the 2005 General Election campaign (although he was one of the main architects of the 1997 and 2001 landslides). Alan Milburn was put in charge in 2005, and Gordon was only brought in at the last moment to rescue things when it all went pear-shaped. So Levy is wrong.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Buses, benzos and Bebo

I enjoyed today. Sometimes on Fridays I feel like I'm rushing from one place to another, never quite getting there on time (and sometimes running spectacularly late). Often the day is spent 'being seen' at a local event or 'showing my support' for a local organisation; often it's about being shown around places, which can be interesting and educational, but doesn't always require a great deal of input from me. Today was very productive 'though.

For a start, I was on foot most of the day, as the car is still being fixed. (The gasket has gone, and some other things. The guy at the garage refuses to accept that my failure to appreciate on anything but a conceptual level that a car needs water in its radiator is to blame; he thinks there must be a leak in the water pump. I have tried to confess, but he can't quite bring himself to accept that someone could be that useless).

So I headed off to Colston Parade, caught the bus to my office in St George. Why is it that there are so many 'Sorry - Out of Service' buses in Bristol? There were two parked at the bus stop for at least ten minutes while I waited this morning. Later on 5 buses passed me as I walked the length of Church Road on my way to a meeting in Old Market. 4 were 'out of service', one just said 'First Bus' on the front, but was empty and heading for the depot. Why?

First meeting of the day was with two young(ish) men who are trying to set up a role model/ mentoring programme in Bristol for black youth, sending speakers into schools to motivate and inspire pupils. They're both obviously hugely committed to the project, and I'm convinced it could have a real impact. So that was quite inspiring. Then I did a quick radio interview with Original FM about the 'Keep Casualty in Bristol' campaign, called Cllr Pete Hammond for an update on EPHs, chatted to Cllr Ron Stone who popped into the office....

At 11.30am the police turned up, followed by social services. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how agencies in Bristol work together on child protection cases and what support they can give parents whose daughters have fallen into abusive relationships with older men (an issue which was brought to my attention by two mothers whose daughters have ended up living with men in Bristol). It's particularly difficult once the girls turn 16, or when they're not willing themselves to co-operate with agencies. We also discussed internet 'grooming' and I was disturbed to learn how easy it is for predatory paedophiles to use sites like Bebo - which doesn't keep a history of usage - to contact children. I'm going to be talking to Luton South Labour MP, Margaret Moran, who I know has been doing a lot of work on this issue, and following up in a number of other ways.

In the afternoon we walked through St George's Park and along the cycle path to my surgery at Easton Community Centre. Only a few cases today but most of them were quite complex and involved trying to get my head round lots of official paperwork - from the Pensions Service, the Tax Credits Office, Housing and Council Tax Benefits, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal - and asking confused constituents what I could do to help. People often don't know quite what information I need, so we can talk for ages and go off at all sorts of tangents before I finally hit on a piece of paper which tells me exactly what the problem is, and what I can do about it.

One example today was a woman who'd been told she'd been overpaid Pensions Credit as she'd not told the Pensions Service about her private pension; she insisted she'd never applied for Pensions Credit. In fact, what happens now is that pensioners are automatically assessed for their eligibility for Pensions Credit when they turn 60 (or 65 for men). It replaces the old system whereby people had to apply for Pensions Credit or the Minimum Income Guarantee, and take up was far too low. It also removes the stigma which some people, who'd worked all their lives, felt about applying for benefits. But in this case it had caused confusion, as my constituent was adamant she'd not submitted an application.

Back in the office for a telephone conversation with Justin Davies, the new MD of First Bus Bristol, to talk about today's news about some routes being axed. He assured me it's a genuine consultation - which runs till May 25th - and urged me to do all I could to publicise it. We're going to to meet at the Lawrence Hill depot on May 23rd so I can tell him what my constituents are saying. The axing of the no. 48 is a particular concern, although the BEP says there'll be a more frequent service on the no. 49 to compensate. Also told the MD to expect a letter in the post on Monday, asking what the company is doing to make use of new technology (e.g. satellite tracking) to improve performance, and when/ if they're going to introduce smart cards.

After that I met with Una Corbett, who has been doing sterling work on behalf of Battle Against Tranquilisers for a long time now - see She raised a lot of what seemed to me to be valid concerns about the way in which people addicted to benzos are treated by GPs, pharmacists and psychiatrists, and I'm going to be tabling some questions on it soon, as well as firing off a few letters.

Then it was a mad rush to sign off on a huge pile of correspondence, discuss key issues with the office staff, chat with the chair of my constituency party, read the press cuttings, etc, etc, before heading off to a meeting at the GMB offices with care home staff and relatives of residents in EPHs. We're expecting revised proposals to be announced by the City Council soon, and came up with a list of criteria we could use to assess whatever is offered.

Arrived home exactly 12 hours after I left, as the sunshine gave way to thunder and lightening. Made it just in time!

Boris leaves by the back door

Just watching Portillo on This Week refusing to say who he voted for in the London mayoral elections, but saying that he regarded the Boris Johnson campaign as "an insult to my intelligence". So not Boris then.

I wonder how long they'll be able to keep Boris under control? His minders refused to let him answer questions at his first press briefing, and then smuggled him out of the back door of the GLA (whilst Ken, as ever, caught the bus to work to clear his desk).

But surely they can't keep him muzzled for ever. If they do, at least the Johnson family should be good value, from his father insisting he'll do a great job as mayor solely because of his mastery of ancient Greek and Latin, and his sister insisting that he is in no way homophobic because, after all, 'he went to Eton'. It's another world, it really is.

I will probably get round to saying something more intelligent about the local election results at some point, but not tonight...

Thursday, 8 May 2008

The virtual MP

Busy few days back in Westminster after the Bank Holiday. Four more sessions of the Local Transport Bill committee; PPS-ing for DFID in a debate on the Congo and an emergency statement on Burma; meeting with Save the Children staff; voting to abolish the blasphemy laws (by 378 to 57 I think, with only some Tories and unionists voting against); stepping up the "Keep Casualty in Bristol" campaign; and a whole host of other things.

On Tuesday I met with some guys from IFAW to follow up on the seal hunt issue. And apologies in advance to all the techies out there if I'm using the wrong terminology or whatever... I have just about heard of Second Life, which is some kind of virtual reality world on the internet. (How am I doing so far?)

Anyway, IFAW have a virtual island on Second Life with virtual zebras and all sorts. On Saturday there will be a concert on the island in support of an EU ban on the trade in seal products, with real live music (folkies from America) but with virtual counterparts appearing on the stage. Then in true Live 8 style, they will cut to a video link from 'an EU politician'. That would be me. Or rather, a virtual reality me. (They are under strict instructions to make her considerably more attractive). Will try to put a link on my main website if I can work out how...

Incidentally, the USA banned the trade in seal products in 1972, which is why the emphasis is on an EU-wide ban now.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Should chickens eat pigs?

I may come to this debate with certain prejudices, but this seems pretty revolting to me:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the argument seems to be that the cost of grain is going up (because, inter alia, we're eating more meat and it takes 7kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef) and we can't afford to feed chickens on cereal anymore, so we'll have to mix it with pig remains.

Need to get all the supermarkets on board with this one.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Can someone tell me - what is the point of tagging posts?

I will, I suppose, get round to saying something about the election results at some point, but not right now. This is the first weekend I've had free since Christmas, and the past week has been incredibly busy, so I am determined to do as little as possible: catch up with some friends (but not the one who voted for Boris and refuses to concede that means she voted Conservative); see the Joy Division film; do some shopping; watch Ronnie win the snooker (but genius is an unpredictable thing...); make the DVD player work (it hasn't since I was burgled last June); and find out where the recycling bins have gone (on the 'To Do' list for Easter - I failed then , and will probably fail again. They have vanished. I can barely leave the flat for piles of newspapers).

No doubt I will still end up reading the Sunday papers and watching Adam Boulton or Andrew Marr, by which time I might have something intelligent to say. Or not. In the meantime, feel free to join in the debate about the musical merits - or otherwise - of Lionel Ritchie; I'm quite enjoying that one.

And perhaps someone can help me with this: what is the purpose of putting labels on a post? If I tag this with 'snooker', 'Joy Division' and 'Lionel Ritchie', what difference does that make? Will I be innundated with Lionel fans proclaiming the merits of "Truly" and "Endless Love"? (I'm sure it tells me somewhere on this site, but I can't be bothered to look).

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Cameron shows he cares

David Cameron has an adjournment debate next Wednesday, in Westminster Hall, on "Flooding in Witney". Very unusual for a senior opposition frontbencher, let alone the Leader of the Opposition, to ask for such a debate. I suspect it's because he got so much stick for going off to Rwanda to paint walls last summer, instead of staying in his constituency to help flood victims. So he wants to show he does really care after all (and clear the way for a return trip to Rwanda this summer, which I gather is on the cards).

I'm PPS-ing in a DFID debate immediately beforehand, so might stay on to watch; if today's Defra questions are anything to go by, Phil Woolas will be replying on behalf of the Government, and I suspect it could be quite good fun!

Interviews about buses are like buses - they all turn up at once.

I was woken at 7.13am this morning by a phone call from Radio Bristol, asking if I'd go on air in a matter of minutes to talk about the £42m we're expecting from the DfT. Cursing the idiot who had given them my home phone number (which was me), I think I managed to sound lively enough and not as if I'd just woken from less than six hours sleep. During the few minutes I had to collect my thoughts I logged online, and realised my contribution to the Local Transport Bill committee debate had made front page of the Evening Post. Then I got a call from Star Radio, and have just recorded a piece with them too. The level of media interest confirms what we all know - that transport is a huge problem in Bristol, and people are desperate for solutions. So I will certainly be chasing that £42m again, so we can fund more showcase bus routes and get the city moving again.

Best when we are at our baldest

Rather a strange set of issues at Defra Qs today, but then they often are. Ministers were asked about the plight of pigeon fanciers, the collapse of bee colonies (we're giving them £1.3 million), the rights of canoeists to access shorelines, and the amount spent to protect 4 great crested newts, which rendered Sir Nicholas Winterton apoplectic with rage. Best answer came to John Grogan's canoe question. He reminded the Chamber of Gordon Brown's phrase that Labour was "at its best when it was at its boldest". Junior minister, Jonathan Shaw, replied that he could certainly be bald, if not bold. (Well, it was funny at the time. Sadly Jonathan didn't get to answer the question about poultry farmers, so he couldn't repeat his "this is not a paltry issue" line, which was probably just as well).

It's always good when Tories conform to type and confirm all one's prejudices. Not only did we have Sir Nicholas doing his "stuff and nonsense" act about protecting endangered species, but they also reacted with outrage when I asked my first question about rising food prices. I asked the Secretary of State if he accepted that increased meat and dairy consumption was a factor, which was greeted with howls of "No! No!" from the benches opposite. I then asked if he agreed that more industrialised and intensive farming methods were not the solution, to cries of "Yes they are" and "So what's your solution?" (The answer to which, in all honesty, would be - go vegan - but I thought their blood pressure had been raised enough for one day.)

Later on we got to my question about a ban on seal products, which was also met by Tory groans. Admittedly the bunch of Tories who attend Defra questions are probably not the most enlightened representatives of their breed; they include the country squires, and MPs who represent pig, beef and dairy farmers, as well as the fox-hunting brigade. But it shows that Cameron still has a long way to go before he can claim to lead a cuddly Conservative party.

Of course, Cameron himself still supports fox-hunting, as the House was reminded at PMQs yesterday when Gordon Brown was asked what was being done to ensure that the hunting ban is properly enforced. Ann Widdecombe - who is pretty sound on animal welfare issues - is holding a meeting on this in Parliament the week after next, probably much to the disgust of many of her colleagues.