Tuesday 30 October 2007

Consulting constituents

A month or so ago a couple of constituents, residents of Stockwood, came along to one of my surgeries. Their lives were, they said, being made a misery by aircraft noise. Sometimes it got so bad they couldn't hear themselves talk to each other in their garden. They'd tried taking up the issue with the airport bosses, but had got nowhere.

In a bid to find out whether other local residents were also being affected, I wrote to people living in that part of the ward, asking if they thought it was a problem too.

I've now had a lot of letters/ emails back. Although I've yet to do an analysis of the responses, it's clear that opinion is divided. Some constituents are saying, yes the noise is terrible and it's got worse over recent months; it's unbearable and we're really glad you're doing something about it. Others are saying it's not a problem at all, they've never noticed the noise. In fact some are saying it's not a problem at all and why on earth are you wasting your time on this when you should be bothered about X, Y or Z instead. (X, Y and Z almost invariably being traffic problems, which I'm now taking up with the Council).

My difficulty is that the people saying "yes it's terrible" live in exactly the same roads as the "no, it's not" people. So I'm going to write to the Airport boss, revealing the results of my amateur survey, and see what he has to say about it.

Monday 29 October 2007

A good result

A very successful parliamentary lobby today from Bristol Drugs Project.

Great turnout, including the Chief Superintendent of police, the chairman of the bench at Bristol magistrates court, HSBC (who were sponsoring the event), local lawyers, former service users, and many involved in drugs treatment work. And a good sprinkling of MPs, including Doug Naysmith, Dan Norris, Liam Fox (who actually made a pretty good speech), and John Penrose (from Weston, which has a real problem with drug users moving into rehabilitation hostels there and then staying on in the town after they've lapsed). Paul Smith, Labour candidate for Bristol West, was also there. (Contrary to recent press reports, BDP is not in my constituency, it's in West, but I've been working closely with them and spent a day volunteering there a while ago). Ben Bradshaw, Health Minister and Minister for the South West, also attended on behalf of the Government, and spent a lot of time talking to people before the speeches began.

Will give a fuller report on my website proper, but the event concluded with the Chief Exec of the National Treatment Agency telling the meeting that there would be significant increases in funding over the next few years (similar to the 39% increase this year and 28% the year before). He explained that the gap couldn't be closed overnight as it would mean withdrawing funding immediately from authorities which are considered to be over-funded, but the aim is to have closed the funding gap by the end of this Comprehensive Spending Review period - i.e. by 2011. Excellent news!

More drugs funding for Bristol

Today is the day of the Bristol Drugs Project lobby of parliament, which I'm supporting.

Bristol is woefully underfunded by comparison with other cities - we get just over £1000 per addict in treatment, whereas Birmingham gets more than £2000 and Newham gets more than £4000. So we've been campaigning to redress this. I brought it up at PMQs a while ago (in the Blair days) and put down a series of written questions to try to find out more about the funding gap. Armed with that ammunition, we're now ready to put our case to the Government.

The rest of the South West doesn't fare too well either, with 13 out of the 15 areas receiving below the national average. A dozen South West MPs have promised to come along to the reception I'm hosting in Parliament today, and Ben Bradshaw, the Minister for the South West, will be there to hear their concerns.

One other figure to bear in mind - it's estimated by the Home Office that for every £1 spent on an addict in treatment, the country saves £9.50 on crime and social costs. So it's money well-spent.

Sunday 28 October 2007

Eating red meat

Interesting report in today's Observer about the link between red meat consumption and cancer:


Williams jumps ship

Interesting to see that Stephen Williams, my neighbour in Bristol West, is backing Nick Clegg for the Lib Dem leadership. He was of course Chris Huhne's agent last time round. That must have taken some explaining.

How does he find the time?

On Thursday night I was, as chance would have it, speaking at a Somali week event in Bethnal Green, George Galloway's constituency. I arrived back in Bristol afterwards to catch the man himself on Question Time, having a go at Tony Blair for something he'd said in a 'highly-remunerated' speech in the States (or something to that effect). It was then pointed out to him that Tony Blair hadn't in fact been paid for the speech in question.

Is this the same George Galloway who records in the Register of Members Interests being paid for "a series of 15 events organised by Clive Conway Ltd" (£10,001-£15,000); hosting a show on Talk Radio (£100,001-£105,000), fees for appearing on "Don't Call me Stupid" (£10,001-£15,000) and for hosting "Big Brother's Big Mouth" (£35,001-£40,000), a weekly column in the Daily Record (£25,001-£30,000), as well as expenses for overseas speaking tours in Canada and South Africa and shareholdings in Finjan Ltd, a company established to receive his income as a journalist, author and public speaker? Oh, and he's also been paid advances on three books, and received between £145,001-£150,000 for appearing in Celebrity Big Brother.

The same George Galloway, according to www.theyworkforyou.com, spoke 6 times in debates in Parliament over the last year (which includes asking parliamentary questions) and voted in only 12% of divisions. He spent only £259 on centrally-purchased stationery (617th out of 645 MPs) and £163 on postage (634th) - which works out at about a dozen letters a week to, or on behalf of, his constituents. But maybe he uses his substantial income to buy his own stamps?

MPs and their 'holidays'

So, according to the Daily Mail, MPs only work 34 weeks of the year...

True, Parliament closes down for a 10 week recess during the summer. I actually agree that this is too long, and that we don't have enough time to scrutinise legislation, or to fit in all the other things we are, or should be, doing in Westminster. The argument in favour of 'breaking up' early - 22nd July next year - is that Scotland's school holidays are earlier than in England, so Scottish MPs would miss the opportunity to spend time with their kids if we broke up much later. And we can't go back until the second week in October because that's when all the party conferences finish. (The answer would be to move all the conferences forward a couple of weeks; that would take a few years to sort out, but is definitely do-able.)

I can't speak for other MPs, but this is how I spent my 10 weeks this summer:

- The first few weeks were mostly spent in Bristol, catching up on things I don't get time to discuss with staff during 'term-time', sorting out the office computers (a perennial problem), holding surgeries, carrying out constituency engagements, etc. I also spent a few days in the London office, just making sure everything was ticking over there.

- August 19th I went to Uganda, for two weeks volunteering with VSO, working in their Kampala office. I then headed straight to Addis Ababa to meet colleagues for a four day parliamentary delegation to Ethiopia/ Somaliland. (I confess, I had a day to myself in Addis before my fellow MPs arrived, but it rained and I stayed in my hotel room watching TV. I also had a Saturday off in Uganda, when I went to the source of the Nile in Jinja). I also carried on with parliamentary work while I was away, checking emails every day and putting in the occasional call to the office.

- Arrived back in early September, and another two weeks in the Bristol office/getting out and about in the constituency. I also moved flat. Plus a day trip to London to plan my Conference diary.

- Week nine was Labour Party conference in Bournemouth. And week ten was going to be my 'getting my life sorted in readiness for the new term' week but ended up being dominated by the election that never was - we'd just taken delivery of 40,000 parliamentary reports that would have had to be pulped if an election was called, so we got (most of) them out. We also had a real blitz on casework, as that would have been put on hold during any campaign.

So basically recess this year meant a few earlier nights, a few weekends off, the chance to catch up with family and friends, to do a bit of shopping, move flat, and even go to the theatre. And yes, if I hadn't gone to Uganda I would have had a proper holiday; last year I spent 12 days in New York in August, and then went diving for a few days in Italy in September. But it's not 10 weeks 'holiday' by any stretch of the imagination, and I think it's true for most MPs that even when they do go away, they feel guilty about missing events in the constituency back home.


Parliament is going to be prorogued on Tuesday, probably after some very late night votes, until the following Tuesday when it's the Queen's speech. Yet another holiday, according to the Mail. Just for the record, I've got constituency engagements on the Thursday and Friday, two speeches to write, and we're going to finish off all those little bits on the new website which aren't sorted yet.

Friday 26 October 2007


Was going to follow up with a spirited defence of MPs' "holidays" tonight, but too tired. (I need a holiday!)

Today's itinerary was as follows: breakfast with Oxfam, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth and Bristol's Labour MPs; 1 press interview (about my EDM on the Community Champions fund); two hours of emails, website and blog; a lunchtime meeting with the council leader and Cabinet; 4 radio interviews (2 on the reception I'm hosting in parliament for Bristol Drugs Project on Monday, 1 on MPs' expenses, 1 on my pensioners Council Tax benefit take-up campaign); a 90 minute surgery (quite a short one this week, but interesting cases); 3 hours in the office signing letters, dealing with correspondence, yet more emails....

I've had busier Fridays - the worst are where you have 6 or 7 appointments, scattered all over the city, and end up running late for everything - but it's been a week of late nights and early starts. So I'm going to switch off the laptop, watch Jonathan Ross and read the Guardian. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

MPs expenses - the questions that need to be asked!

So the annual media frenzy around MPs expense claims is underway. The Daily Mail's coverage is particularly infuriating: "MPs are now picking up an average £200,000 for working 34 weeks a year". But that will be saved for another blog!

I haven't looked at my expenses in any detail yet, but think I had a fairly average claim, apart from higher than average postal costs (the second highest amongst local MPs). And that's because I respond to everyone who contacts me on an issue, whether it's through traditional letters/ emails/ surgery appointments, or through postcard campaigns, email campaigns or petitions. Bristol East constituents being what they are - a pretty clued-up, politically aware, politically active bunch of people - I get more of the latter type of correspondence than many MPs. Many constituents are members of organisations like Greenpeace, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth, and take part in their campaigns by lobbying MPs. The 'standing in St. Mark's Road on a Saturday afternoon' type of campaign always results a heavy postbag for me, with the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign holding the current record of about 800 or so postcards. Although the local bingo hall wasn't far behind, with about 500 cards calling for a change in bingo taxation.

I respond to them all, usually with a letter from me setting out my views and often an enclosed letter from the relevant Government Minister, after I've written to him/ her on the constituents' behalf. Sometimes I will follow up again at a later date, if there have been important developments, for example, with the Climate Change Bill being published. To give another example: I recently received a petitition from churchgoers and some local residents in Brislington, calling for me to oppose attempts to tighten the law on smacking children. I wrote back, explaining why I was supporting the Children are Unbeatable alliance. (I don't just write to people when they're going to like what they hear!) The Goverment announced yesterday, however, that it had decided against changing the law, so I sent another letter out to all the signatories, updating them on this. Occasionally, if someone comes to a surgery and raises a local issue, I also write out to local residents asking them if they think it's a problem too, so I can be sure I'm representing everyone, not just the person who has come forward. So if someone says there's a parking problem in their street, I'll write to everyone in the street.

I think this is what an MP should be doing; if constituents take the trouble to let us know their views, or raise concerns with us, we owe it to them to respond. That's our job.

So the questions that should really be asked about the MPs' expenses tables are: just how come some MPs have managed to get through an entire year without spending any money at all on postage? They all seem to be claiming the full - or virtually the full - allowances for staff, so what are their staff doing all day? They can't be doing everything by telephone and email. (I probably sign about 100 casework letters each work for a start; that's just casework, not policy).

The press have pointed out that many of the highest spending MPs are in marginal seats. I'd turn this on its head and point out that many of the lowest spending MPs are in very safe seats. Are their majorities so big they can get away with taking their constituents for granted, year after year? Would you rather your MP spent taxpayers money on replying to your letter - or do you think they should just throw it in the bin?

Later on this evening - why we don't get 91 days holiday a year. (And why we're not 'picking up' £200,000 either!)

Why do the Tories find prostitution so funny?

Denis Macshane asked at Business questions yesterday about the possibility of a parliamentary debate on prostitution, particularly about the issue of curbing demand. Although it's not recorded in Hansard (I wonder why?) he was forced to break off in the middle of relaying the tale of a 12-year old, sex-trafficked from the Balkans, because of sniggering from the Conservatives on the benches opposite. This came as he gave details of how the girl was abused by her first client, a man in his late sixties, while a guard stood outside the door.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about the prostitution problem in Bristol during the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill - and got exactly the same response. It was as if Beavis and Butthead had been allowed into the Chamber. And I was speaking about highly-visible soliciting by drug addicted prostitutes outside school gates at the time.

Maybe they think of prostitution as a kind of jokey Cynthia Payne, Personal Services, luncheon vouchers for randy vicars kind of issue. Maybe they're just overgrown public schoolboys and the mention of anything "rude" sets them off. Or maybe they're just idiots.

Thursday 25 October 2007

What does a vegan cook look like?

One of the topics in today's statement on the Governance of Britain was the right to protest near Parliament. This was reported in a front page "Guardian"story by reference to the conviction of Maya Anne Evans, "a vegan cook from Hastings" for reading out the names of British casualties in Iraq outside Downing Street.

This unnecessary level of detail immediately conjured up for me an image of a middle-aged woman, her hair in long plaits, almost certainly wearing a chunky knit jumper, saggy tights and brightly-coloured shoes, with suitably "ethnic" jewellery and an earnest air. I've since Googled her, and she looks nothing like that. I've been a vegan for 16 years and I look nothing like that. Not quite sure where I'm going with this, other than to reprimand myself for sharing the prejudices of many folk out there!

Unparliamentary language

Got a text from my mother this morning, saying I'd featured on Radio 4's "Yesterday in Parliament". Can only think this is because Sir Patrick Cormack was rendered apoplectic by the Minister's response to my Justice Q, which was quite entertaining.

This reminded me of the time maybe a year or more ago when I received a rather unsettling email, saying they'd heard a piece on "Yesterday in Parliament" about the use of unparliamentary language, with the example given of something said that week in the Chamber by "the outspoken MP, Kerry McCarthy". I was told by the correspondent that I was foul-mouthed, and a disgrace to my profession (or something along those lines), and, what's more, potentially jeopardising the good reputation of decent colleagues with similar surnames, whose constituents might mishear the programme.

Cue panic in the office, with me frantically trying to remember exactly what I'd said that week. A quick trawl of Hansard revealed a couple of inoffensive questions, so we resorted to calling the BBC. Several phone calls later, we discovered that the piece had in fact been about "the outspoken MP, Fiona Mactaggart", who'd decided that the use of the word 'effluence' was not sufficiently evocative to describe a particular problem with - I think - sewers in her constituency. I later discovered that not only had Fiona received an identical letter, but so had Sarah McCarthy-Fry... I didn't quite get an apology from the complainant - she seemed to think it proved her original point!

Gordon Brown was also accused of using unparliamentary language yesterday, in suggesting David Cameron was "misleading" the House. As was made clear by the Speaker in responding to subsequent points of order, however, it's OK to say "misleading", but not to say "deliberately misleading" - i.e. you can get things wrong, but not on purpose.

Abortion laws

My Bristol colleague, Dawn Primarolo MP, gave evidence to a Select Committee today about a possible review of the abortion laws, saying that the Government was not persuaded of the need to reduce the 24 week time limit on abortions.

I've had a few letters about this issue recently, as the Human Tissue and Embryology Bill is coming before the House soon and there's the possibility someone might put in some amendments on abortion. I've also had emails from pro- and anti-abortion groups, and at least one of the Sunday newspapers is trying to poll MPs on the issue. Plus there was today's news that David Steel, who steered the 1967 laws through Parliament as a young MP, had reportedly said there are too many abortions today.

Actually, on reading David Steel's remarks, I agree with him. I do know women who have used abortion as back-up contraception on more than one occasion, and I don't think this is a particularly desirable course of action. What received less coverage was Steel's conclusion that he still did not support any further restrictions on abortion, including any reduction of the time limit.

Although it's easy to be swayed by some of the arguments in favour of reducing the 24 time limit, because the survival rates for very premature babies are very much better these days, the fact is, very few abortions are carried out at this late stage - and often that is because serious problems are discovered with the foetus. So I doubt if I'd be voting for a reduction. What I do support is removal of the rule that 2 doctors have to sign off before a woman is allowed a termination, which can in some cases mean a delay in it happening. I don't see why one doctor's opinion shouldn't be sufficient. I am also minded to vote for an amendment that would allow nurses to administer drugs that produce terminations, which is in line with Government policy to treat nurses as the highly-skilled professionals they are. None of this is incompatible with believing that we ought to be trying to reduce the number of abortions carried out in this country - by preventing the unwanted pregnancies occuring in the first place.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

News from PMQs

I went to meet a guest in Central Lobby after PMQs today. As I approached him, I saw David Cameron rushing past him, with a young lad in a red hoodie in hot pursuit. I'm told the young lad was asking Cameron 'what are you doing to engage with young people?' but Cameron gave him the brush off. Maybe you need a blue hoodie to get a hug?

No sign of Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne at PMQs today, for the second week in a row - have they been banned?

Poor old Ian Austin, the Prime Minister's PPS, incurred the Speaker's wrath today for shouting at the Opposition during PMQs - but was actually entirely innocent (this time, at least). He was in his usual position, by the Speaker's chair, where he could be heard but not seen. Despite the Speaker claiming his hearing 'was bang on', it was actually a Government minister making all the noise.

Gordon also got into a bit of trouble for accusing David Cameron of 'misleading' the House, which was met with entirely fake outrage from the Tories. All of which rather overshadowed the serious business of the session, which included some questions on the Government's commitment to a renewable energy target and further action against Iran, and promises on reducing breast cancer screening waiting times, even for non-urgent cases.

Monday 22 October 2007

Nick Clegg - a dead ringer for Jude Law?

Have just received a trailer for Sky News' new online political coverage, including Adam Boulton's blog. His latest item, on the Lib Dem leadership describes Nick Clegg as looking like "a cross between Jude Law and the young Paul McCartney". This bears absolutely no relation to reality whatsover. Although I suppose if we're expected to look at Arnold Schwarzenegger and think of David Cameron, anything is possible!

My main recollection of my trip to the West Bank with Nick Clegg in 2005 was a conversation we had, when he asserted that Labour had virtually nothing of note to show for two terms in office. I reeled off a list of achievements, (minimum wage, public services, employment levels, etc) to which he replied: 'Well yes, maybe on the economy - but not on the things that really matter to people, like Europe and constitutional reform.' That is why he is a Liberal Democrat.

Nick also demonstrated a very Lib Dem fascination with rubbish and potholes on our trip; I kept trying to get pictures of him pointing at them, in typical Lib Dem Focus leaflet style, but never quite succeeded.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Grown-up politics

A taste of what's to come from the Tories if Nick Clegg wins the Lib Dem leadership.

The New Statesman quotes a Tory MP as saying: ‘Clegg is a screaming Euro-fanatic man-child; he’s half Dutch; he should be called Nick Clog’.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

So the big question is...

So the big question is... just where did Simon Hughes, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne get to at PMQs today? Were they under orders to absent themselves from proceedings just in case the House made fun of the Lib Dems' current leadership woes? If so, it failed!

I thought Gordon clearly got the better of Cameron today. But we needs some more work on the "Look at me and think of Arnold Schwarzeneggger" soundbite - there's a great joke in there somewhere, but we haven't quite found it yet.

After PMQs I popped into the TGWU lobby of parliament on manufacturing issues, and met a group of about eight workers from Cadbury's, fighting the planned factory closure in Keynsham. I've agreed to do what I can to support them. Cadbury's wants to move production to Poland from 2010 and the union reckons that, once the actual cost of the transfer - £182m was quoted - is taken into account, Cadbury's won't start breaking even on the move until 2016, i.e. it's only then that they can start making a profit based on their ability to pay lower wages in Poland. But wage inflation is currently in double figures in Poland, because the exodus of skilled workers to other EU countries has caused real labour shortages - so the question is being asked, whether Cadbury's have based their calculations on current wage rates or on what they are likely to be if the current trend of economic migration from Poland continues - although presumably as average wages rise in Poland, that trend will slow.

Tuesday 16 October 2007


Have finally, finally got round to sorting out my broadband connection in the London flat and restoring my iTunes library - both victims of the two burglaries in April and May when my laptop and its still-in-the-box replacement were stolen. iTunes have unexpectedly let me re-access all my previously purchased files (OK, I know I paid for them, but you don't expect that kind of customer service) and 300-plus songs are now being downloaded as we speak - except it's been stuck on A Certain Ratio for the last 30 minutes and I think something is going horribly wrong...

Tomorrow is DfID questions at 11.30, which will no doubt be drowned out by the hordes assembling for PMQs at 12. Questions on Africa, the CSR, forestry, Zimbabwe (which is virtually the only African country the Tories ever seem to ask about). I might be in a minority of one - except I'm not because my mother, who was in the public gallery, agrees - who actually thinks last week's PMQs wasn't anywhere near as bad for Gordon as the media made out. Cameron was ruthlessly effective, accepted, but I thought Gordon mounted a pretty robust defence. And Cameron still has to prove he can do proper politics, as opposed to petty point-scoring. He's very weak when it comes to facts and figures, which is of course Gordon's strength. I suspect the Lib Dem sideshow might prove the most entertaining spectacle tomorrow, as Vince Cable tries to convince us he's leadership material and not just a gloomier version of Ming. Labour backbenchers tend to shout 'We are all doomed' whenever he gets to his feet. Which might just be true in the Lib Dems case.

On the subject of the media, how many times did Andrew Neil gratutiously try to insert the phrase 'the puppet chancellor' into the conversation during This Week last Thursday? He's obviously hoping it will stick. (And the Tories accuse the BBC of pro-Labour bias!) But all it means is that the most successful Chancellor in recent times is still calling the shots at the Treasury... and if that is true, I can't see many people having a problem with it.

iTunes is still on ACR - this is not going according to plan...

Ming and the merciless

Strange goings on with the Lib Dems. Not really a surprise that they moved to oust Ming, given their poll ratings, although I think the suddenness of it all took us slightly aback in Westminster. The official line is that he nobly sacrificed himself for the good of the party, and it was solely his decision to go. But why then was the news of his resignation delivered by Simon Hughes and Vince Cable? Where was Ming when they appeared on the steps of Lib Dem HQ to deliver the news to the waiting cameras? (According to the BBC, already on the plane back to Edinburgh without even stopping to speak to the parliamentary party). And wasn't it slightly tactless of Vince Cable to talk of Ming's political career entirely in the past tense, as if he was delivering a personal as well as as a political obituary?

At least the coming contest might just flush the Lib Dems out in policy terms, with a clear choice between Nick "takes votes from the Tories" Clegg or Chris "goes down well with the left-leaning activists" Huhne. (I spent a few days with Nick Clegg in the West Bank once - entirely sound on the Palestinian issue, but very right wing). Feel a bit sorry for Ming - obviously a decent guy but patently not cut out for the leadership. Maybe Gordon will find him a job!

Thursday 11 October 2007

To those who have...

More shall be given!

An interesting angle on the inheritance tax debate.... The Sunday Times rich list estimates the combined wealth of the Cameron family at £30m. And in 2003 the Osborne and Little wallpaper business (part-founded by George's father) was valued at £13m. I think that answers the question as to just who would benefit from the Tory tax plans!

The Tory proposals mean that £1bn a year would go to estates worth more than £950,000 - i.e. the wealthiest 1% in the country. None of them living in Bristol East, I suspect.

Tuesday 9 October 2007

A Lewis Hamilton moment

I suppose you could say Labour has just had its Lewis Hamilton moment. Started off in pole position, didn't pit quickly enough, hit the gravel, but still on course to win the World Championship. Unless of course he loses in Brazil, in which case I will drop the analogy faster than you can say Kimi Raikkonen.

I'm just about mastering all the technology involved in having a new website and a new blogspot and finally joining the Facebook generation. My very first 'friend' request came from someone who then declared on Facebook only a few days later that he's going to be standing against me at the General Election. Can't help thinking this is rather ill-mannered of him!

Arrived back in Westminster yesterday and spent nearly 5 hours in the Chamber for the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. Was eventually called to speak at gone 9.30pm, which meant I had to jettison most of my prepared speech, as it was almost time for front-bench wind-ups. I spoke about on-street prostitution, which is a big problem in east Bristol. The local police are actually far more proactive than many other forces, but need more powers to deal with it. The Bill allows for courts to impose drug rehabilitation orders, with mandatory counselling - 95% or so of street prostitutes have a drugs problem, and this might just be a way of getting more of them to face up to it.

Today is another big day - Comprehensive Spending Review and Pre-Budget Report this afternoon. DfID is going to do well out of it, I'm told, putting us on target to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid by 2012/13. I'm also hoping to hear some good news on child poverty, as I'm hosting a breakfast for Save the Children in Parliament tomorrow morning.