Wednesday 26 September 2007

Bournemouth blog: On the fringe

Busy day today at Conference, including lunch with Oxfam's director, the international debate in the Conference hall, and taking part in two fringe meetings. The first was a Children's Society event, "Protecting Children or Controlling Borders: What's the Priority for Child Refugees?" and I was a speaker, along with Shami Chakrabati and a lawyer from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association. The audience included some young refugees, who told the meeting of the difficulties they've faced since arriving in the UK. Difficult issues – even if children arrive in this country illegally, shouldn't we still treat them as children and protect their rights over and above protecting our borders? - and would have been good to have had a much longer discussion. I spoke mostly about the situation facing young refugees in east Bristol, and what more could be done to help them and their families.

The second fringe, which I chaired, was a Save the Children event on child poverty, giving five young people the chance to quiz Kevin Brennan, a Minister at the Department of Children, Families and Schools about what the Government is doing to meet its goal of halving child poverty by 2010 and abolishing it within a generation. Included in the five were Freddie and Jenny, Bristol's two youth MPs, who had been at the Conference all day and had met with Alistair Darling earlier, as well as Bev Hughes, the Children's Minister. It was a really good meeting, with excellent contributions from all the young people involved.

Save the Children also had a group of 12 year olds at the Conference, campaigning on Make Poverty History. I came across them wandering around with a 'Where is Douglas Alexander?' banner – might come in handy for me back in Westminster! They'd managed to meet with Douglas earlier, and were buzzing with the excitement of having lobbied a Cabinet minister.

Off to Fabians reception now, or maybe the Absolutely Equal bash, where I hear some Ministers are already hitting the dancefloor!

Tuesday 25 September 2007

Bournemouth blog

More or less accomplished my mission to get the new website and blog up and running in time for Conference, but have now realised that I don't know – or, more accurately – can't remember how to post anything on it. Have to hope that someone in the office does! Arrived in Bournemouth at gone 5am on Sunday, so didn't really do much until the early evening, when I popped into the End Child Poverty coalition's reception. Good to catch up with people from Save the Children, the Children's Society and Barnardo's. I'm already chairing a Save the Children fringe on Tuesday, and have now been roped into speaking at a Children's Society event too. After that I went to the South West Labour reception, to catch up with all the Bristol party activists and MPs, and then to the New Statesman party, which is always one of the highlights of the Conference week. Met up with my old friend Furlong there, who was eagerly anticipating another 'Conference list' session. Last year in Manchester we spent much of our time amusing ourselves by compiling a Top 20 by Manchester bands. Obviously wouldn't get far with a Bournemouth Top 20 (or even 10), so we struggled for a bit with a 'South of London' list, and then conceded defeat with 'Bands from Seaside Towns'. Too tired to stay up late, so in bed by midnight.

Monday was of course all about the Leader's Speech, which I thought was excellent. None of Blair's showmanship; just very serious and setting out a clear vision of where the Party is going under Gordon's leadership. Good stuff on personalised learning, keeping kids in education till they're 18, ensuring the poorest pupils are financially supported through university. Issuing 10,000 hand-held PDAs to neighbourhood policing teams will be popular with police officers in my constituency, who have long complained to me about the burden of paperwork, which has to be completed back at the station, wasting valuable time when they could be on the beat. The £260m being made available from unclaimed assets in dormant bank accounts, to build new youth centres is also welcome; we will have to make sure we get our hands on some of that in east Bristol. Also welcome was the pledge to take tough action to tackle hospital 'superbugs' and to hold hospital cleaning contractors to account if they fail to deliver clean wards. As for the film which immediately preceded Gordon's entrance into the hall, it included clips of his recent visit to the Brunel Academy in Speedwell; yet more praise for the brand new school!

Lots of talk, of course, about whether we should go for a snap election. I'm undecided. I can see why Gordon, having now set out his stall, wants to get his own mandate from the electorate. But logistical details, like getting leaflets printed in time, would be a problem (although to what extent leaflets affect the outcome, I've no idea). If I'd been asked a fortnight ago what the chances were of an October poll I'd have said about 5%; now I'd say it's 50-50, and moving towards 'more likely than not'. Thankfully, it's not my call!

Wednesday 5 September 2007

The next stage on my travels...

So, I left Uganda on Saturday and flew up to Addis Ababa. Ethiopia celebrates the Millennium on September 12th, so it's technically 1999 here and the celebrations are already starting. I was told that 30,000 Rastafarians from Jamaica have arrived in town to join the party. After a day spent holed up in my hotel - yes, it's the rainy season here and it rained and rained - I met up with 3 colleagues from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Somaliland at the British Embassy on Monday morning. We flew out to Hargeisa, the capital on Somaliland on Tuesday and arrived back in Addis today. For security reasons we weren't allowed to tell anyone about our trip, including the many, many Somalilanders in my constituency who've been urging me for the past 2 years to visit their country. So apologies to Mustafa, Kayse and the rest of you!

We've had a series of meetings so far, including a day in Ethiopia discussing the Somaliland/ Somalia situation with both the British and US Ambassadors to Ethiopia. I also had dinner with the head of DfID's Ethiopia office - interesting to compare notes on Ethiopia and Uganda - and we're due to visit the UK Visas outpost in Addis tomorrow morning. 53% of the applications they handle are from Somalilanders wanting to come to the UK so I'm looking forward to asking them lots of questions. We're also meeting the Prime Minister of Ethiopia tomorrow too, to talk about his country's role in Somalia.

The visit to Somaliland, brief as it was, was absolutely fascinating. Hargeisa, although obviously poor, is a very picturesque place. We met the President, and I had very useful conversations with the Foreign Minister and the Minister for Planning (who handles Development issues too). We also visited a school and hospital, and met with NGOs, as well as various parliamentarians and their Electoral Commission. Lots of complex issues raised, to do with the lack of recognition for Somaliland and the extent to which their future is tied to the fortunes of Somalia, which we will be following up on when we're back in Westminster. For example, there's no postal service in Somaliland at all - because they're not recognised by the International Postal Union as an independent state. Anyone wanting to send mail has to DHL it.

I'm in an internet cafe at the moment and the clock is ticking, but will provide a full report when I return to the UK on Friday!

Monday 3 September 2007

Holiday Reading

I was reading a fellow MP's blog before I came away, which gave a comprehensive account of his summer holiday in Tuscany, right down to recommending which vintage wines he'd sampled and a very long list of worthy and weighty tomes he'd taken with him to read. I can’t come up with anything to rival that, not least because I don’t drink, but I did bring a couple of topical books with me.

“The Last King of Scotland” is, of course, about Uganda during Idi Amin’s time. It’s a good enough read, but I’d have preferred more politics and less surgery. At one moment Idi Amin is sending ridiculous telegrams to the Queen and Margaret Thatcher; at the next, Uganda is being invaded by Tanzania, and it’s not quite clear why or how it all happened. My pet hate is when authors betray too obviously in a book when they’ve been doing their homework to give their characters credibility: in this case, with the central character being a doctor, there are long and – I think – unnecessary descriptions of surgical procedures. It would have been interesting to have had a bit more about what was going on in Uganda during Amin’s reign of terror, but I don’t suppose that was the point of the story.

After that I borrowed Bret Easton Ellis’ “Rules of Attraction” from the VSO library, which I thought was stupid and pointless (I thought American Psycho was not great but OK; this was a lot worse). Then I borrowed Julian Barnes’ “History of the World in 10-and-a-half Chapters” which started off OK but soon got boring.

The one I’ve been saving for my journey home, is Ishmael Beah’s “The Long Walk Home”, which is a true account of his life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone and how, after being rescued, he managed to rebuild his life, with remarkable success. Over 25,000 children have been abducted into the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda and I’m sure there are many parallels in their experiences, although sadly not in the final outcome. But that’s for the flight home – I’m now meeting up with three parliamentary colleagues for some official business, on the last leg of my travels.