Wednesday 30 April 2008

Defra Qs tomorrow

I've got two pops at Defra questions tomorrow.

First of all I'm up at Question 4, asking about the rise in global food prices. My supplementary is going to be about the rise in meat and dairy consumption as developing countries become more prosperous and switch to Western diets (as is happening in India and China). Most people - OK, slight exaggeration, quite a lot of people - are now familiar with the 7kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef argument, but it was frustrating at DFID questions today when the same topic came up, to hear everyone talk about biofuels (which I accept is an issue, but it's not the only one). I will be asking Hillary Benn if he agrees with me that adopting ever more industrialised and intensive farming methods (to squeeze more meat or milk out of an animal, or more animals into an acre) is not the answer.

My second chance comes up in Topical Questions, a recent innovation which means that you still have to submit your name to a ballot but don't have to say in advance what you want to ask. I'm at question 9, and if we get to it I'll be asking about a ban on the import of seal products. The UK favours an EU-wide ban, but I want confirmation that it would be an unconditional ban. There is some concern that our EU partners could push for a compromise which only bans products from seals which have been 'inhumanely' culled, and we'd then have endless debate about whether clubbing is humane. (Obviously it isn't, but that won't stop them trying).

My weekend

As I've mentioned already, I stayed in Westminster on Friday for Private Members Bill debates, but headed off to Bristol late-ish Friday evening, for two events on Saturday.

The first was great - a rally organised by the Bristol Zimbabwe Association, which included a march around Colston Parade, lots of singing and dancing (though not by me) and some very cute kids. The event was organised by Forward Maisokwadzo, chair of the BZA, (what a great name for a campaigner - Forward with Forward!). I was particularly pleased to see a couple of constituents who I'd met at a recent surgery; they'd fled Zimbabwe because of their involvement with the opposition MDC and told me they'd just got leave to remain, which was great news.

Next on the itinerary was a Palestinian Solidarity Campaign conference, at which I was a speaker, along with Ilan Pappe, a Jewish (but pro-Palestinian) academic. Profoundly depressing. Life is too short to re-run all the arguments here, but basically most of the audience seemed to be saying that the only solution to the Israel-Palestine problem is to overthrow international capitalism and defeat global imperialism. Which of course is obvious, and we should have thought of it before, and now that we know we can start the ball rolling immediately and sort everything out in a matter of months, if not weeks. Plus lots of predictable Government bashing and a wilful refusal to acknowledge that any Labour MPs might actually agree with them. Just to give one example - after the two speeches, and a whole series of questions, one member of the audience demanded to know, quite aggressively, whether we supported a Palestinian state, and if not, why not? He'd obviously not been listening to a word either of us had said (I'd been talking about a two state solution, the road map, 1967 borders, the illegality of the Israeli wall and settlements) or, more probably, was determined to see us as 'the enemy' and didn't want to hear anything which might have confounded his expectations. I tried suggesting that it might be better if we discussed ways forward, that it might be worth trying to work with sympathetic politicians rather than waiting for the revolution, but was just met with more heckling.

The best bit though (and I don't mean best at all, of course) was when I was taken to task for having supported the anti-Mugabe Zimbabwe rally earlier. Apparently what is happening in Zimbabwe is all down to British imperialism and we are denying African people their democratic right to be governed by the leader of their choice, i.e. Mugabe. I kid you not. (This was on the very day when it was announced that Mugabe's attempts to rig the election recount had failed).

The same guy had also been handing out pro-Mugabe leaflets at the Zimbabwe rally. I was with my constituents at the time, the ones who'd fled Mugabe's regime and had just had their asylum claim accepted. And they were being told by a white middle-class CPGB member that he was fighting British imperialism on behalf of the Zimbabwean people.... Words fail me.

All in a day's work of course. And then my car broke down on the motorway and after a long saga involving three different AA vehicles, an AA relay driver who insisted he had to take a 45 minute break (yes, I know, I support the working time directive, but not at that precise moment), and lots of time spent sitting on the hard shoulder and at two different service stations, I eventually arrived at my friend's 40th birthday party in St Albans gone midnight, only to find that what was supposed to be a salsa/Latin/ swing evening had been hijacked by someone called DJ Brian who was playing Lionel Ritchie's "Dancing on the Ceiling". He then played Bryan Adams. The day could, however, have been worse. At least I missed Shania Twain.

Saturday 26 April 2008


On a (much lighter) note, I thought Soulwax were absolutely brilliant at the Royal Festival Hall last night, though I didn't quite have the stamina to stay till 2am. They're in Bristol next Wednesday, but that's being advertised as Radio Soulwax rather than 2manyDJs so might not quite be the same thing? They're also showing the "Part of the Week-end Never Dies" film, which we missed last night because we turned up late. I'd definitely recommend it...

Friday 25 April 2008

Somalia - why doesn't anyone write to me?

Was reading an article in the Guardian about Somalia this morning - a few days old, I always get round to reading the comment pages a few days late - and a thought occurred to me. I have, generally speaking, a very politically aware bunch of constituents in Bristol East. They often write to me about international issues - Darfur, Palestine, DRC, Burma, Tibet, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Iran - and know quite a bit about what's going on in those countries.

But apart from the Somali community, only one person has written to me about what's happening in Somalia during my three years as MP. (Plus a few letters from an organised Amnesty International campaign about the imprisonment last year of several journalists in Somaliland). And yet there are maybe as many as 20,000 Somalis living in Bristol, so presumably some Bristolians get to hear far more about Somalia than any other African country.
And the situation in Somalia is at least as bad, if not worse, as that in many of the other countries I've mentioned.

In January this year, for example, a UN official said that "The situation is very severe. It is the most pressing humanitarian emergency in the world today - even worse than Darfur." (See I actually met this official at a meeting in Parliament a few months ago, and the picture he painted of what was happening in Somalia was pretty grim. So why isn't it registering on more people's radar? Is it because it seems such a hopeless situation, and people have given up believing that things could ever change? Is it because of lack of media coverage (although there's been quite a bit recently)? Or is it because none of the NGOs are, as far as I know, campaigning on it at the moment?

By the way, there's a DFID consultation on Somalia at the moment - see the News section on my website for details.

World Lab Animal Day

Apparently it was yesterday. Interesting comment piece on Guardian website. The author says: "Replacing animal research is as much about engendering a collective 'can-do' attitude as it is about solving technological hurdles." I think she's right.

Tories talk out Bill

Went back into Chamber for the Minister's wind-up speech on Nigel Griffiths' "junk food advertising to children" Bill. I can't pretend to understand the bizarre rules which govern Private Members' Bills Fridays - does anyone? It seems that it is entirely permissible for another backbencher to speak after the Minister, provided we haven't run out of time. So as soon as Margaret Hodge sat down, Philip Davies, the self-styled defender of British values against the scourge of political correctness and nanny stateism, got to his feet. He'd clearly been allocated the task by the Tory whips of talking the Bill out - if he can keep going till 2.30pm there won't be a vote on it, and the Bill won't be able to proceed to Committee stage. The only way of circumventing that would be for Nigel Griffiths to move a closure motion, but I think he needs 100 MPs for that, and, with local elections pending, there aren't that many people around today.

Not only does this mean that Nigel's Bill will fall, it also means that we won't get a chance to discuss the Private Members' Bill second on the list: Anne Snelgrove's Public Sector Buildings (Energy Performance) Bill. This is about promoting energy efficiency by requiring government to procure low carbon buildings, which is already a Government commitment, but not legally binding. I signed Colin Challen's EDM on this during the last Parliament, and was keen to speak in favour. But now we won't get a chance to debate it at all.

Very frustrating as I chose to spend today in Westminster rather than travelling to Bristol as usual, so that I could - as requested by a number of constituents - support these two Bills. Now I won't get to vote on either of them.

The man who killed Ronald McDonald

Have just been in the Chamber for Nigel Griffiths' Food Products (Marketing to Children) Bill.
Much of the debate has focused on obesity, but I spoke on the link between unhealthy diet and mental health/ behavioural problems in children and young offenders, as shown by recent academic research. We'd been forewarned that the Tories would try to talk the Bill out, and it certainly seems that Christopher Chope is trying to do that; he's been on his feet for over half an hour now and shows no signing of stopping.

Another Nigel (Evans, Conservative) intervened on Nigel Griffiths earlier, referring to the Which? campaign against cartoon characters being used to advertise junk food. He asked if Nigel wanted to be known as "the man who killed Ronald McDonald"? (I can't speak for Nigel, but the might well be yes!)

I intervened on Nigel Evans at one point, but I think he misunderstood the point I was making. He was arguing that the information on food products at the moment, giving percentages of recommended daily allowances, was a better system than the traffic light system advocated by many food campaigners. I made the point that many consumers already have to scan packaging for a range of other information - e..g if they have food allergies, or if, like me, they don't eat animal products. It all adds to the length of a shopping trip, and it's much easier if there are simple symbols. (The increasing use of the "Vegan" symbol on food, or a statement saying "suitable for vegans" is a godsend - means I don't have to worry about looking for lactic acid or caseinates or whey powder or albumin or other things that occasionally slip through the net and you only discover it when you get home).

Nigel Evans' response implied that he thought I was saying that the traffic light system would help people with nut allergies identify those products, as he started saying nuts were a bad thing for some people, but quite a healthy food item for others. I didn't mean that at all. I meant that if someone was worried about their weight or general health, and wanted to eat healthily, they could head for the products showing the green traffic light, and then scan for whether it contained nuts. Which would be quicker than comparing percentages of fat, salt, etc, and also having to check for nuts or gluten or animal products.

All the Tories in the Chamber were against the Bill. John Whittindale, who I think is Chair of the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee, argued that a ban on advertising junk food to children would harm children's broadcasting by cutting advertising revenues. He said there was no evidence that advertising of junk food increased consumption, and people should just exercise moderation. I asked him if he thought the same should apply to advertising cigarettes and alcohol; I think the answer was sort of yes, but then he backtracked and said it was different. Even one cigarette is obviously bad for you, whereas there is no such thing as a bad food, just too much of it. One burger is OK; going on a Supersize Me style binge isn't. Seems like a fairly spurious argument to me. One cigarette isn't going to kill anyone; forming a habit is. Ditto with drinking, and with junk food.

Lib Dems - all two of them - seemed divided on the issue, or at least falling off the same fence on different sides, with the front bench opposing and the sole backbencher speaking mostly in favour but not quite. (I was tempted to intervene and point out that I'd seen him in Costcutters a few weeks ago, buying two large packets of biscuits and three cans of Chocolatte after a late night vote, and whether he felt he'd been exposed to too much junk food advertising in his youth, but thought better of it).

More later...

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Newspaper reviews

While I was writing the last post I was watching Mark Oaten MP reviewing tomorrow's newspapers on BBC News 24; he gets to do it quite often. I ask myself, why?

(This is just envy on my part, I would love to do it. A few months ago I was talking to a former Minister, who lost his seat at the last election. He had just done the morning Sunday papers review, on Sky I think, and said it was a dream come true. I suppose that just proves how sad we all are....)

Gwyneth and Barbara

Have been asked to do a piece for Radio 4 tomorrow, on Gwyneth Dunwoody. My fellow guest in the studio will be Clare Short, who, as a former Transport Minister, has probably been on the receiving end of Gwyneth at her formidable best. The discussion is then going to move on to the changing role of women in politics - or something like that; I suspect it may be more along the lines of 'why don't we breed women like Gwyneth anymore?'

I was asked recently to provide 50 words on my political hero/heroine and how they had inspired me, for a forthcoming parliamentary exhibition. I opted for Barbara Castle - and not just because she was 5'1" with red hair, although I do remember being quite thrilled at Labour Conference 1993 to discover that I was possibly just a tiny bit taller than her. She was feisty and funny and fearless and, although indisputably a feminist, didn't get boxed into only doing "women's issues" (but she did introduce the Equal Pay Act). And, until Gwyneth overtook her in 2007, she was the longest ever continuously serving female MP. If only her spell as Transport Minister had coincided with Gwyneth's spell as chair of the Transport Select Committee. That really would have been worth watching.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Great minds think alike

Some inspired questions from the Tories for Treasury questions this Thursday:

Q3. Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): What the percentage change in vehicle excise duty for a Nissan Micra will be as a result of the changes to vehicle excise duty announced in Budget 2008.

Q4. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What the percentage change in vehicle excise duty for a Nissan Micra will be as a result of the changes to vehicle excise duty announced in Budget 2008.

Q15. Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): What the percentage change in vehicle excise duty for a Nissan Micra will be as a result of the changes to vehicle excise duty announced in Budget 2008.


Q5. James Brokenshire (Hornchurch): What his most recent assessment of Northern Rock's business plan is.

Q7. Mr Greg Hands (Hammersmith & Fulham): What recent assessment he has made of Northern Rock's business plan.


Q16. Mrs Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire): What assessment he has made of the level of Government borrowing benchmarked against other major economies.

Q17. Mr Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire): What assessment he has made of the level of Government borrowing benchmarked against other major economies.

Q19. Mr Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): What assessment he has made of the level of Government borrowing benchmarked against other major economies.

Q20. Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury): What assessment he has made of the level of Government borrowing benchmarked against other major economies.

Monday 21 April 2008

A transport anorak writes...

So much for my good intentions of speaking in the Finance Bill debate today. One of the annoying things about parliamentary processes is that if you're relatively junior (and as a 2005-er I'm about as junior as they get) then you really have to be prepared to sit in the Chamber all day before you get called to speak. I already had in the diary a DFID ministerial team meeting and a meeting with Rosie Winterton to discuss the Local Transport Bill, and then there was Gordon at the PLP, so that basically scuppered my plans. (I thought it was probably more important to hear what the PM had to say about the 10p band at the PLP meeting than what some posturing Tory backbencher had to say in the Chamber). And then I decided to read up on the Local Transport Bill papers instead... which is why I'm blogging now - bus stats overload!

Gordon at the PLP

Good meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party tonight, at which Gordon directly addressed MPs' concerns about the abolition of the 10p tax band and promised to review the impact on people on low incomes. He acknowledged that although the Government has prioritised tackling pensioner and child poverty in past Budgets, we need to do more to ensure that people on low incomes who do not qualify for working tax credit, and those who do not benefit from the increased personal allowance for pensioners or the increase in child tax credits, do not lose out. I'm sure more details will be revealed over the coming week.

In the meantime it is worth looking at just how redistributive past Labour budgets have been. The attached graph shows how much the poorest deciles have gained during Gordon's time as Chancellor. Not much consolation if you're in the minority who have lost out in this month's pay packet I know, but it is indisputable that the lower paid are much better off under a Labour government than they were under the Tories. The crocodile tears being shed by the Tories on this issue - which is going on in the Chamber as I write - is hypocrisy of the highest order.

More on sunbeds

According to an article in the Daily Mail (yes, I know) the Government is considering a ban on
under 18s using sunbeds. I didn't realise until I read this that it's only a voluntary code of practice which stops under 16s using sunbeds, not a legal prohibition, and only 1 in 4 salons have signed up to it.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Back to "work"

Recess always turns out to be busier than I expect. I spend most of the preceding month postponing visit requests, telling my diary secretary I'll do them during recess, and then end up with a whole week of 'Fridays'. During the past week I've discovered how nan bread is cooked in a tandoori oven; how sunbeds work (sort of!); and that I'm not as bad at badminton as I thought. On a more serious note, I've also visited Auschwitz and been briefed by the police on the terror suspect arrest in Bristol. And I have once again failed to set up a wireless internet connection in the constituency office. (This is a mandatory feature of recess, that at least one whole day should be spent on the phone to the parliamentary IT helpdesk).

This coming week back in Westminster is going to be completely hectic. We start with Home Office questions which I'd like to attend, especially given recent events in Bristol, but will probably have to miss as we've got a DFID ministerial team meeting at the same time. Then it's the Second Reading of the Finance Bill and I want to speak on child poverty, so Monday morning will be spent trying to bash together a speech. There's also a meeting about the Local Transport Bill, as I'm on the Committee; that starts on Tuesday, with four sessions a week for the next few weeks, so I've got loads of reading to do on that - the briefings are coming in thick and fast! And we have the PLP's weekly meeting, which should be interesting. Plus there's catching up on all the correspondence I haven't seen, and letters I haven't signed while I've been in Bristol.

I also want to speak in a couple of other debates this week. On Thursday there's a debate on points-based immigration and I want to raise some of the issues brought to my attention by local Bangladeshi restaurant owners last week, if I can escape from the Local Transport Bill committee for long enough to do so. On Friday I'm staying in London for Private Members Bill debates, including Nigel Griffiths' Bill on Junk Food Marketing to Children, and Anne Snelgrove's on Energy Efficiency in Public Sector buildings. And on Saturday I'm due to speak at a rally on Zimbabwe and a conference on Palestine, both in Bristol. So at least another five speeches to prepare... Not to mention Transport questions, Treasury questions and PMQs.

By way of light relief, I'm also going to see Soulwax at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday night. I've seen them live before, and they were phenomenal, but that was a straightforward gig, whereas this will include their '2 Many DJs' stuff too. Should be really good.

Boris brought to book

Just been watching Boris being challenged about his past comments about Islam on the Politics Show, i.e. things he wrote in the Spectator shortly after the July 7th bombings. He tried to fall back on the 'my great grandfather was a Muslim' defence, and claimed to have been quoted out of context, but when John Sopel read out the whole paragraph ("the problem is Islam" to quote just a fragment) it sounded pretty damning - see here for more:

Friday 18 April 2008

The World's Biggest Lesson - coming soon!

The Indy's Education Supplement yesterday carried the full story of our recent trip to India:

The Global Campaign for Education will be launching its Global Action Week next week, with the world's biggest lesson timetabled for Wednesday 23rd. For more info on how to get involved, have a look here:

Gwyneth Dunwoody

Had a long and late phone conversation last night with my mate Joe (who thoroughly disapproves of MPs blogging so probably won't ever see this!) He used to intern for Gwyneth Dunwoody, and was her agent for the last two General Elections. Joe introduced me to Gwyneth in 2004 when we were working together at a transport consultancy, and I was immediately won over. Contrary perhaps to how she was perceived publicly, she was incredibly kind-hearted and immensely good fun. And of course she was an excellent chair of the Transport Select Committee. Not so long ago she agreed to meet a delegation from VOSA (the agency for testing and licensing road vehicles - their national HQ is in my constituency) to discuss their concerns about possible outsourcing. I met with them afterwards and they were full of praise for her; they felt she'd genuinely listened and were confident she'd take their issues up.

Gwyneth was an MP for more than forty years, which is itself a formidable achievement, but her political involvement began at a much earlier age. Her father, Morgan Phillips, was General Secretary of the Labour Party and the 1945 General Election manifesto was drafted at the family's kitchen table. It's a real shame she never got round to writing her memoirs.

One story Joe told me last night was about one of the last times he walked through the Commons with her, not so long ago. She spied a certain Cabinet Minister walking in the far distance and bellowed down the corridor at the top of her voice "for God's sake, stop slouching man!" He looked around, terrified, and drew himself up to his full height, apologising profusely. Gwyneth continued to berate him, telling him she'd told him time and time again to stand up straight when he walked! Very typical Gwyneth. I bet she derived real amusement from behaving like that.

Terror arrest in Bristol

Worrying news about the arrest of a terror suspect and a controlled explosion in Bristol today; not my constituency, but I received a call from a police inspector this morning, telling me what efforts had been made to keep local community representatives informed. Bristol City Council have issued the following press release:

Council acts quickly to help residents during police operation

City Council leader Cllr Helen Holland today praised council staff who stepped in to assist residents affected by a major police operation in the Eastfield area of North Bristol late last night. Eleven homes in Comb Paddock were evacuated at around midnight as a safety precaution after police raided a nearby house and arrested a 19-year-old man.

Working closely with the police, the city council speedily put parts of its Civil Contingencies plan into operation and opened an emergency reception centre at Badocks Wood Primary School in Doncaster Road. They were assisted by school caretaker Neil Varlow and two volunteers from the WRVS. Two elderly disabled women, both wheelchair users; four men and six other women were taken to the rest centre. There they were given a friendly welcome, hot drinks and a comfortable place to sit and rest before being taken by taxi to city centre hotels overnight. A number of other residents whose homes were evacuated chose to stay with friends and relatives.

Cllr Holland said: "I'd like to thank the council employees and WRVS volunteers who worked through to the early hours of the morning to ensure that these local people were supported and cared for in what must have been a confusing and distressing situation. This incident demonstrates that the city council has a tried and tested Civil Contingency Plan, which puts the care of people in need first during any crisis. It also shows what a strong, effective relationship the council has with the police and how the two organisations work effectively in partnership to ensure our city is a safer and healthier place."

Thursday 17 April 2008

The future is orange

We - my even paler sidekick Orla and I - popped into the unstaffed tanning salon today. What followed was somewhat farcical, but let's just say we're still on the opposite end of the colour spectrum from Jodie Marsh. (It's the Irish in us, not the meat-free diets, I'm sure). And I have now discovered that sunbeds don't close up like sandwich toasters once they start.

The first thing you see as you enter the salon is a collection of leaflets pointing out the 'benefits' of tanning/ exposure to sunshine/ vitamin D. You have to pay in advance for at least 4 minutes use of the sunbed, which is only £2. There are recommended timings for people of each hair/ skin colour, and it does say that if you're fair or red-haired and always burn instead of tan, you shouldn't use the sunbeds at all - but obviously nothing to stop someone doing so. The maximum recommended usage, for the olive-skinned, was 15 or 16 minutes. It may be that the machine didn't accept more than 15 minutes payment - we didn't test that - but any sunbed user could simply pop back out of the booth after their first session was up, and pay for another 15 minutes. The salon isn't far from the City Academy, and it's easy to imagine pupils popping in there after school for a regular tanning session. OK, the salon does make it clear that under-16s aren't allowed - but with no staff on the premises, what's stopping them?

Latest transport news

Just had a very useful meeting with Cllr Mark Bradshaw to discuss local transport issues. The news that Lawrence Hill station - along with Clifton Down - is going to be one of the first on the Severn Beach Line to be modernised is very welcome, as of course is the fact that they've finally signed off on a more frequent service and - for the first time - a Sunday service on the line.

We also discussed the BRT link, and I was very reassured by what he had to say. The plans for Long Ashton to Temple Meads sound good, and are supported by Sustrans. Should make a big difference to traffic along the Cumberland Basin. At the moment my preferred option for the link from Temple Meads to Emerson's Green would be along the M32, as congestion there is such a problem and the other options - Fishponds Road or Stapleton Road - would require a lot of engineering work; but we obviously need to see what the consultants have to say about it. We also talked about what could be done to protect the cycle path and increase use of it by both pedestrians and cyclists (e.g. improving the route around Temple Quay), and about encouraging more use of park-and-ride schemes.

I've been chosen to serve on the Local Transport Bill committee, which has its first session next Tuesday and runs for several weeks, so some of these issues will no doubt come up during those debates.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Tanning salons

If anyone spots me entering a tanning salon this week, it's not because I've taken George Monbiot's comments to heart.

Soon after I was first elected I was visited by a local company which runs unstaffed tanning salons across the South West, who sought to reassure me that they weren't being misused by under-16s or so-called 'tanorexics'. They said they carried out spot checks and surveys of customers and - despite the fact that it's sometimes as cheap as £1 for a quick session - there was no evidence that the absence of staff on the premises was encouraging unsafe tanning. Unconvinced, I later signed an EDM put forward by my Labour colleague, Sian James, who has been campaigning on the issue for a couple of years now. Since then I've been meaning to check out the one just down the road from my office in Church Road, just to see how easy it would be for someone to overdo it.

Now the Guardian reports that a 13 year old boy in South Wales has suffered serious burns after spending a total of 21 minutes in a stand-up tanning booth while the salon was unstaffed. He suffered serious facial blisters, his wounds became infected, and he started vomiting. The salon's maximum tanning time is, in theory, 6 minutes but obviously if it's unstaffed, there's nothing to stop someone having several sessions on the trot.

You could argue that insisting on having staff to police use of the salons is another example of the nanny state, but it's the only way I can see of stopping children using them.

Feeding the world

For a more intelligent take on the topic, have a look at this.

Pasty-faced and scrawny vegans

George Monbiot in Tuesday's Guardian:

A vegan replies (followed by lots of non-vegans):

Shame that George Monbiot's original point - about the impact of increased meat consumption on global food prices - has been lost somewhat during the course of the 'debate', if you can call it that.

Monday 14 April 2008

New Poll on Website

Have put a new poll on the website, with five possible responses, just to make it more interesting. The questions is: what's the biggest contribution Bristolians can make to tackling climate change? Possible answers are - using public transport; recycling more; not using plastic bags and buying over-packaged products; reducing energy consumption at home; and switching to a meat-free diet. Look forward to seeing the results!

The Grauniad

According to the birthdays column in Saturday's Guardian, DFID Minister Gillian Merron turned 69 on Saturday and 'the Conservative MP' Lyn Brown turned 48 on Sunday. All I can say is, Gilly is looking pretty good for her age! And Lyn kept the defection pretty quiet.

Saturday 12 April 2008

More on Arctic politics

Typical - last Saturday we left Stansted so early that Saturday's Guardian hadn't yet made it through security, so I had to settle for the Times instead. The letters page in this week's magazine altered me to the fact that last week's edition featured a lengthy article on the Arctic, 'though it was about Canada's Northwest Territories rather than Norway's High North (which turns out to have been quite warm by comparison). It's a really interesting piece.

What are reindeer for?

The Arctic trip posed a bit of a moral dilemma for me. No, not whether we were justified in flying to the Arctic to learn about climate change - I known we'll invite some flak for that, but that's a separate issue. I started thinking quite seriously on the trip about my views on fishing and hunting, 'though I wouldn't go so far as to say I questioned my stance - I'm not pro either. (One of the problems with allowing comments on blogs is that you get paranoid about whether people are going to - deliberately or otherwise - misinterpret what you're saying, so you end up having to clarify and restate and justify ad nauseam. So - I'm still very much a vegan, for ethical, health and environmental reasons as well as a general squeamishness about things being killed or factory farmed).

Anyway, I was lucky in that of the six MPs on the trip to Norway, one was a vegetarian who doesn't eat meat or fish, and another was allergic to nuts, so I wasn't the only one being a bit of a pain on the dietary requirements front. The food was great in fact, although one of the Norwegian embassy staff confessed afterwards that when she'd been texting and phoning during our meetings, it had usually been trying to explain to our hosts exactly what a vegan was.

Our very first briefing took place on a deep sea fishing trip, and we were all given fishing lines. Not wanting to offend our hosts by objecting, I took a line, hoping I wouldn't catch anything. None of us did, and we got a double-page spread in the local newspaper the next day, which basically was along the lines of 'English MPs are crap at fishing'. To which I can only say - you should have seen us skiing!

The next day, in Svalbard, we were taken to dinner in a traditional hut, which meant sitting on seal skins and being served reindeer stew. Jamie (the vegetarian) and I were given something involving sun-dried tomatoes, which isn't what you'd expect to find in the Arctic. The owner of the restaurant, who was also in the dog-sledding business, has lived in the Arctic for 35 years. He came over to lobby me on how ecologically sound his reindeer meat was, as the animals had been treated well and lived a fairly idyllic life. He said he'd had a visitor from the World Wildlife Fund recently, who was a committed vegetarian but had been persuaded by his arguments and tucked into the reindeer stew. He didn't convince me, but it did start me wondering - what is more ethical? People in Svalbard hunting reindeer and seals for food, clothing and furnishing, or importing things like sun-dried tomatoes and mass produced clothing/ bedding from elsewhere?

On mainland Norway, in the High North, there are also environmental issues: on the one hand, it's the traditional Sami way of life to herd reindeer; on the other, the numbers are getting out of hand and destroying vegetation. And what about fishing, which is Norway's second largest industry after oil/gas? The oil supply won't last forever, but the fish will, if conservation policies are followed. If they don't fish or herd reinder, what's the alternative?

I suppose my get-out clause is that the chances of people stopping fishing, hunting, and eating meat and fish are so remote that it's not a dilemma that needs to be resolved, either now or in the foreseeable future. I can just continue putting the case for better animal welfare standards, pointing out the sometimes barbaric practices involved in industrial food production, and making the environmental arguments for reducing meat consumption. I can't see them eating Quorn in the Arctic just yet!*

*And yes, I know Quorn isn't vegan. There's a Facebook group about it, 'though I knew already. See what I mean about justifying things?

Abolition 200 Legacy Commission launch

Last night Paul Smith, Labour's candidate for Bristol West, and I went along to the launch of Bristol's Abolition 200 Legacy Commission at the City Museum. One of the speeches was from Paul Stephenson, who even now is perhaps best known for his role in organising the Bristol bus boycott in 1963 (see for some more info on this).

He told an anecdote about how he'd recently seen two young white girls looking at him in a strange way as he walked home; ignoring their looks, he continued down his path, only for them to approach him as he opened his front door. He turned to ask them what they wanted.

They asked if he was Paul Stephenson.... They were thrilled when he said yes - they'd learnt about him in history that week!


Have just been reading the blog by Tom Harris MP, who was surprised to have attracted interest from a Genesis fans site after mentioning the band. Something similar happened to me: I came up with a list of best Manchester bands during an idle moment at Conference in Manchester in 2006, and ended up being contacted by the guitarist from Big Flame; then I did a list of obscure Bristol bands, and was emailed by the singer of the Private Dicks. If I insert gratuituous references to Evan Dando at every possible opportunity, do you think there's any chance he'll be next?

Incidentally, here's a plug for the next UK Decay reunion - - although I would like to make it quite clear I was never a goth. I was strictly long overcoats and Joy Division. But UK Decay at the Luton carnival was the second ever gig I went to; the first was ELO at Wembley with their huge spaceship and laser light show - quite a difference.

My friend Ray is drumming with the band at the reunion, standing in for Steve Harle who sadly died on a train in India when he was 35 or so, and they've apparently been asked to play at something called the Dead Goths festival in Lisbon this summer too. (I think I've got that right). He is trying to rally the troops so we all go over for it... I have my reservations!

Global warming? What global warming?

I thought that would get your attention...

Spent a few days in the Arctic earlier this week and no, I haven't turned into a climate change denier, but it was certainly very cold - minus 18! We arrived in Tromso, in the High North of Norway (a mere minus 1) and then went out to Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, which is part of the Svalbard archipelago. It's roughly the same distance north of Iceland as Iceland is north of Britain, if that helps you place it. Or you can look on Google Earth, where you will see lots of snow.

Will post a few separate blogs about it during the course of the day. It was an incredibly fascinating trip, which taught us a lot about Arctic politics, energy policy, fisheries policy, the relationship between Norway and Russia, and the impact of climate change on all these things. We also had a lot of fun, exploring inside a glacier (sort of like caving but with icicles instead of stalactites and stalagmites, and some very slippery bits); attempting cross-country skiing, (hopeless, and I have the video footage to prove it - we resorted to sliding down the mountain on bin lids instead); and dog-sledding (same place where Cameron did his husky photo-op; if you look closely you can still see the Lexus tyremarks in the snow).

The Norwegians are very nice people, I think I can confidently say. We tend to look to Sweden for examples of social democracy in action, but we can learn a lot from Norway too. They are committed to spending 1% of GDP on overseas aid, and have very enlightened family-friendly policies around work, childcare, welfare. (It helps of course that the country is "stinking rich", as one of the Norwegians we met on our travels told us, because of oil and gas revenues).

A few years ago, however, the Christian Democrat party introduced a system of payments to parents who didn't use state nurseries for their one and two year olds; the argument was that they were contributing towards the cost of this provision through their taxes, and so should be compensated if they didn't make use of it. One of those arguments that seems plausible at first glance, but soon unravels when you look a bit more closely. What about the childless, or those with adult children? What about people who pay for the health service but virtually never see a doctor? Etc, etc. The other criticism levelled at the scheme was that it was really motivated by the belief that women should stay at home with their kids, i.e. a piece of social engineering. When the Red-Green coalition, led by the Norwegian Labour Party, reassumed power in 2005, however, they ended up keeping the payments as they'd proved so popular, despite not really agreeing with the concept.

More musings to follow...

Somalia - the crisis continues

Today is the first Saturday since January when I haven't had constituency engagements in the diary. (Technically speaking, I didn't have any last week either, but I had to get up at 4am to get to Stansted so that didn't count). So it's a day of leisure today - at the moment I'm listening to Any Questions (Alan Johnson, always worth a listen, plus William Hague and Shirley Williams), updating the website and reading the weekend newspapers on line. My main mission for today is to discover where the recycling bins for my block of flats have disappeared to - otherwise I soon won't be able to get out of the front door for piles of newspapers.

Earlier today I heard a disturbing report on Radio 4's "From our Own Correspondent" about the dreadful - and deteriorating - situation in Somalia. It gets very little coverage, because it's simply too dangerous for journalists and reporters to go there, but the country is in a state of complete lawlessness and increasingly people are fleeing Mogadishu for refuge in neighbouring countries. Efforts to get the African Union to play a peacekeeping role have so far been unsuccessful, apart from a thousand or so Ugandan troops who, given their limited numbers and the ferocity of the fighting between the rebel warlords and the Ethiopians, aren't really able to do much. I can't see much hope for the immediate future either, given the situations in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sudan, which command much more international attention. Worth listening to the webcast of today's report, if you get a chance.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

London mayoral contest

Worth watching last night's Newsnight debate between the three main London mayoral candidates if you didn't see it. I thought both Paddick and Johnson came across as very much out of their depth, very amateurish, and I can't detect in Johnson any real enthusiasm for the job. He strikes me as someone who is obsessed with high politics, if that's the right phrase (Westminster village, newspaper comment columns stuff) but with no interest in the fairly mundane mechanics of delivering policies on the ground. Good to see Ken is pulling ahead in today's polls.

Thursday 3 April 2008

Cycle path celebration - the video

Here's the youtube footage of the rally at the end of the cycle path celebration on Sunday. Excellent speech from Paul Smith, Labour candidate for Bristol West.

Ed and Andy at play

I love this clip. I can see it being replayed for years to come...

Khat and cake - MPs talk drugs

I spent some time in the Chamber earlier today substituting as PPS to the Home Office Minister, Vernon Coaker, as a favour to a fellow MP and also to Vernon for coming down to Bristol a couple of weeks ago for the residents' meeting on prostitution.

The debate was on drugs strategy, with some interesting contributions. John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, has done some really good work on heroin addiction in his constituency since he was elected in 2001 and cited some interesting stats on how heroin use has declined in recent years, e.g. he urged MPs to check figures for drugs-related admissions to A and E departments in their patches. Worth reading his speech in Hansard if you get a chance.

The Tory MP David Amess decided to bring up the subject of his public condemnation (on Brasseye) of the fictitious drug 'cake' before anyone else could. He tried the 'anyone could have fallen for it' defence, although if memory serves me correctly, he did deliver his anti-cake rant while holding something huge and yellow, and with Chris Morris (an absoute genius - where is he now?) citing lists of ever more absurd 'street names' for the drug. Maybe it was all down to the editing. David drew the conclusion that the programme-makers had failed because 'no-one was stopped from taking drugs' as a result of the sketch. Erm... don't think that was quite the point somehow! (Have just discovered this site:

The issue of khat use - particularly by the Somali community - was also raised during the debate. I've raised it with the Home Office before now, and by coincidence arrived back at my desk to find a letter from Vernon on the subject waiting for me. I'll post it on my main website when I get a chance.

Cycle path latest

Yesterday some councillors and officers from the West of England Partnership came to Westminster to talk about rail issues with the Minister, Tom Harris. The night before, the Council voted on two different amendments the cycle path issue. I also had an impromptu meeting in Parliament yesterday with Paul Smith, the Labour candidate for Bristol West, and Roger Berry, MP for Kingswood, and spoke to other Bristol Labour MPs in the division lobby. And I collared Rosie Winterton, the Minister of State who has primary responsibility for cycling issues and local transport within the DfT, and told her what was going on; I'm now going to follow this up in writing.
Let me be quite clear about my position on this: I told people from the West of England Partnership quite unequivocally that I would not be prepared to support any option which affected the current use and enjoyment of the cycle path in any way. That means not just if it physically impinges on the path, but also if it removes surrounding greenery, or destroys the tranquil atmosphere. I am pleased that they are now considering other options, but concerned that using the cycle path has not, it appears, been totally ruled out. I have also questioned whether this route - i.e. linking the science park with the city - should be the Partnership's first priority, when we have appalling congestion on, for example, the M32, the A4 and Fishponds Road. I'm told it's because 6000 new jobs are being created at the science park, and people will need to get to work - but will those people be coming from the city centre/ east Bristol? I'm told the current route between Kingswood and the Science Park is very heavily-used, and congestion will obviously get worse, but why does that mean a BRT link through Easton and Eastville is needed? I have to finish now, as I'm due for a spot of PPS-ing in the Chamber, but I want to make it clear that Paul and I will do our utmost to ensure that the cycle path option is not just shelved, but binned.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Nick Clegg

As I walked through Members' Lobby today after the 4pm vote I ran into a blushing Nick Clegg, who was being 'congratulated' by everyone who passed on his frankness in his recent GQ interview - And I see that Michael White has started calling him Nick CleggOver...

BNP and the London Elections

This speaks for itself.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Getting the rail service back on track...

Sorry, but recent experience has proved to me that it's absolutely impossible to talk about the railways without using words/ phrases such as "on track", "on board", "derailed", "along the line", etc, etc. Had a very useful meeting today with Tom Harris, the Rail Minister, and a handful of other MPs from the RMT parliamentary group - see the full report on my main website.
I'm also hosting a meeting in the Commons tomorrow for councillors from the West of England Partnership, before they go off to meet Tom Harris too. Incidentally, Tom has a pretty good blog - - which I think has only recently been resurrected.


As recommended by Ben Bradshaw on Facebook today:

More plans for transport in Bristol

Today's BEP:

Success for the cycle path campaign?

It was a fantastic day on Sunday for the Cycle Path celebration, not just because of the sunny weather but because at least 1000 local people turned out to show their support. Along with Paul Smith, Labour Candidate for Bristol West, and Faruk Choudhury, councillor for Easton, I joined the march at Fishponds. Two hours later we arrived at College Green, having collected hundreds of people along the way. There was some concern over whether the plans have been 'shelved' and calls for the council to make clear that had indeed been 'binned'. My understanding is that in the short-term the focus now will be on putting a BRT link between Long Ashton and the city centre, and at some point they (by which I primarily mean South Gloucs council) to link it to Emersons Green - but it won't be along the cycle path.

John Grimshaw from Sustrans urged everyone gathered on College Green to support his campaign for new cycle paths to link up with the existing Bristol-Bath path, which sounds like an excellent idea. He wants as many people as possible to come forward to 'adopt' these proposed paths and mount local campaigns in support. Can't find any info on their website as yet, but I know they've got maps of the suggested routes for anyone who's interested.