Monday 31 March 2008

Seal hunt - the view from Canada

A couple of years old now, but shows overwhelming support amongst Canadians for a ban.

Saturday 29 March 2008

Stop the Seal Hunt

Have just been doing a bit of research on the Canadian seal hunt (yes, I know - a fun way to spend a Saturday night!). For some good info, see here:

Also found this IFAW press release, which tells us that in Canada seals are classed as fish, rather than as sentient marine mammals that can experience pain, fear and suffering - which I thought was interesting (not to mention highly convenient!)

A date for your diaries

Finally got round to reading the copy of The Spark that has been kicking around my flat for the past month. Very disappointed to discover I'll be missing the Bristol Vegan Fayre ("the world's biggest vegan fayre") this year, as I've already agreed to take part in a conference in Jordan that weekend. It's on Saturday May 31st and Sunday June 1st. Will have to lend my vegan sister and family the keys to my flat so they can come down for the weekend - with strict instructions to do some shopping for me there! And Misty in Roots - one of John Peel's various bands - will be playing too. For more info and tickets see

The Spark is also advertising an event in Castle Park on May 9th-10th, to mark World Fair Trade Day. Bristol's first Ethical Expo will include stalls, speakers and workshops, as well as Chocolink, a live link to a cocoa growers' co-op in Ghana. See

Are we heading for a global food crisis?

Interesting piece by pig farmer (amongst other things) Rosie Boycott in the Guardian:

Breaking news (and it's good news!)

According to the Evening Post, it's definite. The Bus Rapid Transit scheme has been shelved: Congratulations to everyone who supported the campaign. Sunday's march and rally will still be going ahead, to get across the message that we don't want the scheme resurrected at a later date.

Friday 28 March 2008

Advertising the army

I visited Connexions, the youth service, today and was asked at one point what I thought about the NUT's desire to ban the army from school careers events. I think the armed forces are as legitimate a career choice as anything else, and with the current involvement of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan it's unlikely any young person would be under any false illusions as to what signing up might entail. But I'm not at all comfortable with the idea of 16 year olds being allowed to join up anyway. Let the army visit schools by all means, but raise the recruitment age to 18.

New poll on website

Having been for the first time surprised by the outcome of a website poll with the last one on post office closures, I suspect the only surprise with the new poll will be if there are any yes votes at all. Will see how it goes, but might pull it after a week or two if the result looks like a foregone conclusion.
It's about the West of England Partnership's plans to put a Bus Rapid Transit link alongside the Bristol-Bath cycle path, which will be voted on by Bristol City Council on Tuesday. On Sunday people will be marching along the cycle path from Fishponds to the city centre, setting off at 2.30pm and rallying at College Green at 4.30pm, to celebrate the cycle path and demonstrate their opposition to the proposals. I've written to the Council, and also spoken to the Transport Minister Jim Fitzpatrick about the plans (hence his rather oblique reference to cycling when he mentioned me in his wind-up speech in the Local Transport Bill debate on Wednesday). I hope that on Tuesday the plans are thrown out.

Breaking news: BBC Points West has just reported that Bristol City Council have said the plans have been shelved. I'd heard earlier that Cllr Mark Bradshaw might be making a statement to that effect, by way of a webcast on the BCC site; not sure that's quite what he's saying... have a listen here: Good on him if he has kicked the plans into touch; we can celebrate on Sunday!

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Embryology Bill

I'm not always a fan of the Indy's front page format; it lends itself too easily to sensationalism sometimes. But today's is spot on, and very powerful.

They've also reproduced Gordon Brown's letter to MPs on stem cell research, which I'm going to post on my main website - but see here for the link:

I think I've made my views clear elsewhere, but just for the record, I'll be voting with the scientists on this one.

Monday 24 March 2008

Embryo/ stem cell research

Last night I went to a cystic fibrosis fundraising event, organised by my sister, whose 3 year old has CF. It was a great evening, with several bands playing and a good turnout. The aim was to raise sponsorship for a friend who's running the London maration next month for the CF Trust - see (My good friend John is also running the marathon on behalf of Heart UK, so best give him a plug too:

The day before, on arriving back in the UK from India, I'd picked up several messages asking me to do media on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill - too late to actually do them, but I spent Sunday morning catching up on what the Catholic church had been saying on hybrid embryos. The term 'hybrid embryos' conjures up a Frankenstein vision of mutant babies growing into monsters, but I'm sure the majority of people will back the Bill once they realise what is really involved - I've taken this from a Q and A on the BBC's site, ( just to make sure I get it right:

What is a hybrid?
The experiments involves transferring nuclei containing DNA from human cells, such as skin cells, into animal eggs that have had almost all of their genetic information removed.
The resulting cytoplasmic embryos are more than 99% human, with a small animal component, making up around 0.1%. The embryo would be grown in the lab for a few days, then harvested for stem cells - immature cells that can become many types of tissue.

When I Googled the Bill just now to check I'd got the science right, the first hit was on this site: The blurb suggests it's an impartial guide to the Bill - "This website has been created to provide briefing material and information on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Here you can keep up to date with the latest news, press articles, bill amendments, parliamentary questions and much more". The site is, however, hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, so I suspect it's far from impartial on the key issues. I wonder if, for example, they'll be adding a link to Lord Winston's comments today:

For the record, I'm very much in favour of the Bill, not least because of what I've learnt over the last few years about cystic fibrosis. Here are some links which tell you a bit more about how advances in gene therapy could help find a cure for the disease:

Back from India

Arrived back from India the day before yesterday, from the sunshine to the snow.
I've taken some video footage and a few pics, so will put them on the main website soon. The Indy sent a journalist with us, and will be doing a big feature in their education supplement, so I'll post that too.
As PPS in DFID I'm a bit restricted in what I can do to follow this up in a public way in Parliament - I can't, for example, ask for an adjournment debate or put down parliamentary questions. What I really want to do is to take what we've learnt on the trip out to as many schools in my constituency as I can, and I know that the teachers who accompanied me on the trip are keen to do that too.
The Global Campaign for Education is having a Global Action Week towards the end of April, with what is billed as the World's Biggest Lesson - an attempt to break a world record - on 23rd April. I hope we can persuade as many schools in Bristol as possible to take part. For more info, see

Website poll

I'm running a poll on my main website - - about post office closures in Bristol. Usually I have a pretty good idea what the voting's going to look like on these polls, and it's been difficult to find issues where the result isn't obvious before we even start. This one has been different, however, with far more people supporting at least some closures than I would have expected. The percentage voting for no closures has increased quite significantly over the last week - maybe because of the Opposition Day debate on Wednesday? Given the daily movement on the poll, I'm going to leave it up for a while longer, till the end of the month.

Slight technical hitch

Something seemed to have happened to the site over the past week, which meant that no comments could be left on the most recent posts. Think I've got this sorted now. On a more general note, rather disappointing that the only thing people seem to want to comment on is expenses, and that no-one has anything to say on, for example, child poverty.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

India with World Vision

I'm halfway through a visit to India with World Vision, as part of the Global Campaign for Education, with Laura and Alice, two pupils from Bristol Brunel Academy. We've visited several villages and schools in Mewat, a predominantly Muslim area about an hour's drive from Delhi. World Vision have been working in these communities to encourage parents to send their children to school. We met one family of four children, a boy aged 15 and girls aged 12, 9 and 7. The boy told him his ambition is to do a computer course; the oldest girl wanted to be a scientist; the next to join the police; and the youngest wants to land on the moon!

In one village I met a group of women who had, with World Vision's encouragement, established a self-help group. Amongst other things the group makes low interest loans to people who couldn't get money from the banks or money lenders, and gives small grants to families who would not otherwise be able to afford the 60 rupee admission fee for primary school (an annual fee which covers books, materials, etc). They have also done their best to persuade parents to keep their children on at school, and we met a group of children who had dropped out but had then, after the group intervened, gone back to school. The women were confident, articulate, and clearly determined to do their best to improve life in their village. At one point I asked them what the men were doing; they laughed!

There is huge development going on around New Delhi and its neighbouring city Gurgaon, which is where we're actually staying. The villages seem a world away, but we were told by one farmer that the Government wants to buy up their land, for more building. The price being offered isn't much by way of compensation for losing their livelihood. The farmer had switched to organic farming a few years ago; he told us that his produce was better (watermelons twice the size) and he could get a better price for organic fare in the city (a sign of the growing prosperity in places like New Delhi). I asked why they'd started using chemical fertilizers in the first place, but his answer - or my question - was lost in translation. Again, it was World Vision who'd encouraged him to go organic and helped him find a market for his produce. He wants his children to get a good education so they can be part of the 'new India' which we see being built all round our hotel, and, when you see the poverty in his village, you can entirely understand why. At the same time, however, there's something a little disturbing about seeing the pace as which vast swathes of the country is being concreted over. Progress, perhaps - but at what price?


Interesting story in today's Guardian about a new initiative in Bristol to encourage to use their cars less:

Monday 17 March 2008

Prostitution meeting in Eastville

Really good meeting this morning in Eastville, with the Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker.

A very good turnout from local residents and some terrible accounts of just what they have to go through on a daily basis, from stepping over drugged-up prostitutes' bodies in the stairwells of their flats to seeing men in easily identifiable work vans kerb-crawling in the middle of the day. And a number of people raised the question, just what to tell the children when they ask what's going on? Haven't got time to say much more now, but I do want to make it clear that today's meeting was the start, not the end, of the consultation. I'll be meeting with Vernon again in London to discuss how we can take things forward, and also following up with the police and Safer Bristol Partnership, who were at the meeting too. We won't solve the problem overnight, but we can make a start.

Sunday 16 March 2008

A prime seat at PMQs

This is for people who know me. It is really annoying to get loads of texts after people have seen me on television sitting behind the PM at PMQs, telling me to stop fidgeting or to put my folder down or to look interested or to uncross my arms. This happens once every five weeks or so, when DFID questions take place immediately before PMQs, so I get a prime seat.

This week it happened to be the Budget too, and got very crowded on the second row seats as PMQs started. (Cue lots of texts telling me I looked very squashed, and congratulating me on my chutzpah in muscling my way in there - I was there first!) Most of the texts, however, were telling me to stop fiddling with my necklace. There was a reason for this. My five year old nephew Oliver had made me a necklace of beads for Mother's Day, and I'd promised him I'd wear it next time I was on television; so the fiddling was to make sure he noticed.

Apparently at school the next day Oliver's 'news' was that his Auntie had worn a necklace he'd made her. His mother says she doesn't think his teacher quite realised what he meant by it!

Next DFID questions is on 30th April - no more texts please, and if I'm wearing a particularly attractive piece of jewellery, you'll know where it came from. (Actually Oliver's MP is a certain Tory who was boasting in Vogue recently of her £4000 diamond earrings; maybe he should send her some of his work?)

MPs expenses and other things

The constant trundle of new stories about MPs expenses is thoroughly depressing, and the sooner it all gets sorted the better. Have just got off the phone to my mother, who every Friday night has to put up with her friends making cracks about it. This week they were asking if I'd got a new £10k kitchen at their expense (much to my mother's bemusement as she'd spent the past 10 days in Spain visiting my sister and knew nothing about the so-called 'John Lewis' list.)

The main problem, as I've said before, is that every MP's circumstances are different. Those of us who got elected in 2005 will be paying an awful lot more on mortgages or rent on their London flats than people who were elected decades ago and bought properties then. At the moment there's nothing stopping someone who has paid off their mortgage, or has a very small mortgage, from using part of the Additional Costs Allowance (which is about £22-23k p.a.) to buy a £10k kitchen. Very few of the 2005-ers, or MPs who need a second family-sized home rather than the tiny flats most of us occupy, would be in that position. Similarly, some MPs use up every last penny of their Staffing Allowance on their over-worked and under-paid staff, whereas others with a less demanding workload can afford to 'employ' family members to do nothing.

I don't know quite know what the solutions are. I just want it to be resolved soon, not least to stop David "£13m family fortune" Cameron's shameless attempts to make political capital out of it.

P.S. My sister has just reminded me that on 'Any Answers' this week a caller suggested that the state should provide housing blocks for MPs, so we can all live together in the same type of accommodation. Why not go one better, and put us all in dormitories? Or better still, bunk-beds?

Post office closures

Something else that's been taking up some of my time recently. I've been a little surprised by the (admittedly unscientific) poll on my website on this topic, which shows only 13-14% totally opposed to any post office closures and quite a large percentage - about a third - saying that all non-commercially viable post offices should close. The majority, however - just over half - think that in some cases post offices should be saved, where they serve a genuine community need, even if they're not commercially viable.

The one in my constituency which causes me most concern is the post office in Broomhill, although I am consulting with residents in other areas affected by closures too. It's a long way from Broomhill to Sandy Park Road or Birchwood Road, the two alternatives suggested by the Post Office, and there are some steep hills on the way. Bus services aren't brilliant either. If we can't keep the existing Broomhill post office open I'm wondering if we can persuade the Co-op to set up a post office service within its store on Broomhill Road. This would seem to make commercial sense, as there would be few of the overheads of running a separate operation, and it could increase business in the store too. I'm going to ask the Co-op if this is something they'd be willing to consider.

Child Poverty

This is a bit old news now, but it's one of the reasons I've been too busy to blog over the past week or two. As people know, I've been acting as the informal co-ordinator in parliament of Labour backbenchers with an interest in child poverty, and as such have been working closely with the End Child Poverty coalition.

A couple of weeks ago I met with two of the campaign groups involved in ECP, to discuss what final push we could give to the campaign ahead of the Budget, to make sure that child poverty remained firmly on the political agenda. I volunteered to try to get a few colleagues - we thought maybe 20 or so would be a respectable number - to sign a public letter to the Chancellor and Prime Minister, which we'd then send to the Observer.

So I emailed out a letter to Labour MPs and was amazed by the response; more than 70 signatures in less than 48 hours, and nearly 80 by the end of the week. Signatories included David Blunkett (former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions), Hugh Bayley (minister at the DWP when the child poverty pledge was made), Tony Lloyd, the chair of the PLP, and the chairs of the three main select committees tasked with scrutinising the child poverty pledge, i.e. Treasury, DWP and Children, Schools and Families. A significant number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries also signed up.

The media was puzzled: they wanted to know whether this was an act of rebellion by PPSs; or if we'd been put up to it by the Government; or if we'd been put up to it by one or more Cabinet ministers trying to fight their corner in the last minute pre-Budget negotiations. But the sheer range of MPs who'd signed up - some arch-loyalists, some ex-ministers, some Campaign Group MPs, some who could be seen as Brownites, some who could be seen as Blairites - meant it was impossible to suss it out.

The truth was far simpler - Labour MPs care about child poverty and want the Government to fulfil its pledge to abolish it within a generation. We know some good stuff has been done, but there's still more to do. And we wanted to get that message across. No conspiracy, just conviction politics. (In fact, on Monday night a Cabinet Minister whose Department has some responsibility for child poverty walked past me on his way from the division lobby. "Nice sweater" he said, which I thought was rather strange, although I was wearing a blue sweater dress at the time, which is something of a favourite of mine. At 5am that night I woke up, and realised: "Nice letter", he'd said. Which came as quite a relief.)

From the local to the global

Tomorrow is going to be a hectic day. I have, at long last, managed to get a Home Office Minister down to Bristol to meet with local residents and others to talk about the problem of on-street prostitution in parts of Eastville and Easton. Unfortunately it's a day time meeting, but that's when Ministers do such things, so we had to go along with it. As well as local residents and councillors, we've got the police coming, as well as agencies such as the Safer Bristol Partnership and One2Five (which provides support for sex workers). The event will start with a few brief presentations, including hearing from local residents about the problems they've encountered (sex litter, being propositioned or threatened by women/ punters, having to explain to their children what's going on outside their school, etc). And then we'll tell the Minister what, if anything, the Government could be doing to help us tackle the problem.

After that I might just manage to get to London in time for the weekly DFID ministerial team meeting. Then a few hours in the Westminster office, and then I'll be heading to Heathrow for a flight to Delhi.

The trip to India has been organised by World Vision as part of the Global Campaign for Education - which campaigns for free, compulsory education for all. At the moment 72 million children don't have this right. I'll be accompanied on the trip by Laura and Alice, two pupils from Bristol Brunel Academy who will be reporting back to their fellow pupils on their return. They've already come down to Parliament for the day, where they met the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development, and I'm sure it's going to be the trip of a lifetime for them.

In India we'll be visiting an area called Mewat, a few hours from Delhi, populated mostly by Meo Muslims. The literacy rates here, particularly among women, are appalling low, at around the 2% mark. (For men it's about 27-33%, which is still below the national average). We're going to be looking at the barriers - cultural, social and economic - preventing girls from accessing education, and also meeting policy-makers and NGOs who can do something about it.

Just to be absolutely clear...

I am not really suggesting that we get rid of all the hills in Bristol.

Just the one between here and my office.

Updates (lots) - starting with the cycle path

So, my good intentions of blogging regularly didn't quite come off. One of the problems is that when loads of interesting things are happening, which would be worth blogging about, there isn't enough time in the day to do so. But today - a relatively relaxed Sunday, apart from the shedloads of recycling I have got to get round to taking downstairs at some point - I'm going to try to recap on what's been happening over the last few weeks. (Actually this is my second attempt; I was well into my flow a moment ago when the page refreshed and everything I'd typed disappeared - it does this all the time and I always forget it's going to do it. So I am now going to 'save' every ten seconds and hope that works).

I'll start with an apology - or at least an explanation. Yesterday, after leaving a conference at the Council House on building bridges with the Muslim community I popped into the bank and bumped into Peter, who was setting up a bank account for the campaign against a Rapid Bus Link on the Bristol-Bath cycle path. He asked if I was banking my expenses - more on that later! - and then, as we got talking, said that some of the people involved in the campaign had been a bit unhappy about something I'd posted a while ago. I'd said something about needing more Showcase Bus routes in Bristol, but "we also need to keep the cyclists happy". The impression they'd got was that I thought buses were far more important, but we needed to placate the cyclists, fob them off, whatever.

So - let's try again. I do think that sorting out public transport in Bristol should be, if not our number one priority, certainly up there with schools, housing and crime/ ASB. Getting a decent bus service isn't just a transport issue; we won't be able to get people into work, into training, to job interviews, to college courses, if they can't rely on getting there on time. Soon we'll have several thousand new jobs created at Cabot Circus, some of which should be filled by people from the more deprived areas of east Bristol. But that won't happen if they can't get to work.

I don't want to see lone parents, or people who are taking their first step back into work after being on incapacity benefit for a long time, or teenagers getting their first experience of the world of work, dropping out because the public transport system has let them down. I don't want to see kids left at school gates because their parents haven't been able to get back from work in time to pick them up. I don't want to see pensioners standing at bus stops in the freezing cold and rain because their bus has yet again failed to turn up.

I've been doing a lot of work on child poverty lately - more too on that later - and what comes across time and time again is that the problem for many parents isn't so much finding a job; it's keeping it. And that's partly down to problems finding suitable childcare, partly down to whether someone is really 'better off in work' once things like housing costs, travel costs, the loss of 'passported benefits' like free school meals and prescriptions, are taken into account, and partly down to the logistical difficulties of juggling work and family life. If such parents can't rely on their bus turning up on time - or even turning up at all - then they're not going to last long in their jobs, and our efforts to lift children out of poverty will have failed.

So - sorting out the bus system is a real priority, and Showcase Bus Routes are a major part of this. But.... that doesn't mean I want to see one running down the length of the cycle path. For a start, no-one has actually demonstrated that the proposed bus service would be well-used, or is particularly needed. Even if they could, however, I believe the cycle path should be protected; it is well-used, by walkers as well as cyclists, and is a peaceful haven amidst the bustle of the inner city wards. (OK, there's a problem with drug-dealing in some places, and that's something we need to tackle too). And when I say protected, I don't just mean that the bus route shouldn't physically take up any of the cycle path; the tranquility and safety of the cycle path should also be protected, which doesn't mean having buses thundering up and down the length of it.

I have fired off letters to various people, asking for more info about the West of England Partnership's plans for the Rapid Bus Link, but haven't had any formal response yet. I've been variously told, informally, that the plans are on paper misleading, that it wouldn't impinge on the cycle path at all; that it's just a proposal and is very unlikely to come to fruition; and that the other bus routes are more of a priority. But I will publish the responses on my website when they arrive.

So, just to be clear: I want to protect the cycle path, and I'm keen to see more cycle paths, and more cycling, in Bristol. I think there's a lot more that could be done to support it; I occasionally cycle around Bristol, and the city centre is a nightmare, with cycle lanes stopping and starting and disappearing into thin air. (Getting rid of the hills would help too!)

I'm glad to see that the campaign against the proposals has received such public support, and I'll be there on 30th March for the celebration day - possibly even with my bike, if I can get the puncture fixed in time! Let's hope the weather's good.