Thursday 31 July 2008

Read it in books

One of the journalists whose calls I have been returning (actually, the only one) is Holly from the BEP who wants to know what I'll be reading over the summer hols. We haven't managed to get hold of each other yet, which gives me plenty of time to log onto Amazon and try to find a selection which makes me look like (a) an intellectual heavyweight, but (b) not completely obsessed with politics, and (c) with a breadth and range of interests which would put Melvin Bragg to shame.

What it will really be is (a) one intellectual book which I have bought with the best of intentions but then never quite fancy reading because it is recess after all; (b) three books I buy at the airport under their 'buy two get one' free policy, which I read without much enthusiasm and can't remember a word of two minutes later; (c) something of the 'chick-lit' variety that comes free with a magazine and can be read in 32 minutes; and (d) whatever is left in the hotel room by the previous incumbent. Which is usually Jeffrey Archer.

This year's candidate for the heavyweight slot is 'Stuffed and Starved' by Raj Patel, which looks like a fascinating analysis of the politics of food. And I like the sound of 'Child 44', the thriller that's been listed for this year's Booker prize, because I like thrillers and I like books about Russia (and because all the literary snobs are annoyed it's been shortlisted). But that's about all I can drum up enthusiasm for at the moment...

Check it out

I'm glad I discovered Don Paskini's blog - his latest posts are very sensible indeed. He quotes a CiF post from an 85 year old who has been using the NHS regularly since 1992, and reckons it's much, much better now. The same guy also says that he's much better off than he was 12 years ago, even if the last 12 months have been a bit tough.

One of my (many) sisters tells a similar story. She's been using the NHS regularly - i.e. appointments every few months at various different hospitals - over the past 30 years, and she says she notices the incremental improvements on every visit. She also has two sons: one is off to university soon; the other is at infant school. Same place, 12 years later; she says the change in education is phenomenal.

I'm not for one moment saying everything is perfect; of course it's not. But the investment in public services is paying off. Pensioners are better off, even with rising fuel bills and above inflation council tax rises. It would be absolutely tragic if we throw all that away at the next election. Which is why I haven't been answering the phone to journalists today.

Wombling free

One of the advantages of recess is that it's actually possible to plan my diary in a sensible way. Usually my days in the constituency are a mixture of (a) events where the date, time and place are not of my choosing; (b) things I've slotted into the diary a few weeks beforehand because it looked like quite a clear day at the time; (c) last minute invites which I have to accept but am going to find it very difficult to get to; and (d) urgent things that have been squeezed in at the very last minute regardless of how they fit into the rest of the schedule. The result is often chaos - trying to get to the other side of the city in ten minutes flat, always running late...

But today was great. Four appointments in Old Market - all on foot, and I got to every single one of them on time - then a walk up the road to my surgery at the Old Bank, and then another short-ish walk to the office. (And then a bus home). First call was at WayAhead, the youth housing association, to be intereviewed for a book they're publishing to mark their 25th anniversary. Next was across the road at Barnardo's to discuss the BASE (Barnardo's Against Sexual Exploitation) project which works with young people at risk of being abused, pimped or groomed by adults; my involvement with this started when I was contacted by the mothers of two teenagers who'd been brought to Bristol by older men. Thankfully one has now returned home to her parents. We also had a chance to discuss the Government's child poverty pilots, and Bristol's chances of being chosen to run one. (Martin Narey, Barnardo's chief executive, chairs the End Child Poverty coalition).

Next stop was the Trinity Centre, to talk to arts administrators about their funding situation and future use of the centre. (Which is a great venue. I think I'm right in saying that New Order played there once; I was reading 'Confusion', the Bernard Sumner biography, over Christmas and I think it was mentioned it in there. Or was it Joy Division? Answers on a postcard please).

Then it was lunch at the Whole Baked Cafe (splendid place) with Paul Smith, Chief Exec of the Furniture Re-use Network. Paul knows absolutely everyone in Bristol's voluntary sector, the vast majority of whom seemed to be in the Whole Baked Cafe today. He's organising a national event - "the Big Womble" - in Wimbledon in the autumn, to promote re-use. It will include a national raffle of celebrity household goods; an auction on the day; and also local events run by local re-use organisations. The money raised will be used by the FRN to support its social and anti-poverty work. Paul is of course also the Labour candidate for the new Bristol West seat (which will include Old Market) at the next election. And he insists he's already got his hands on a Womble costume...

Wednesday 30 July 2008

Perhaps vampires is a bit strong but...

I was going to put something on here about David Miliband's article for the Guardian, and the ridiculous spate of Kremlinology it has produced from the media, but Hopi has already put it much better. (Slightly worried I have made him a bit paranoid with my 'Blob from the Backroom' typo, as now he keeps talking about his exercise routine). I caught a bit of Sky News earlier and the reporter was quoting David as saying "I disagreed with Margaret Thatcher, but at least it was clear what she stood for". Although it is absolutely 100% clear from the article that David M is drawing the comparison with the 'empty' David Cameron, the reporter said 'ooh, this could be interpreted as a coded attack on Gordon Brown...' Only to a complete idiot....

The problem is, Labour needs to get its political agenda across - and that can't be left to Gordon, it should be a team effort - but any senior Minister who raises his or her head above the parapet this summer will be immediately accused of launching a pre-emptive strike on the leadership. We can't win in this current climate. There are journos spending their every waking hour calling Labour MPs, trying to find one who will say something negative. And it's usually only those ones who respond, as the rest of us aren't playing ball. All I will say is this: I still believe Gordon's the best man for the job (or should that be best person, in case someone assumes I'm sending out smoke signals for the - non-existent - Harriet Harman campaign?). And I'm not going to fan the flames in any way by indulging in, or responding to, leadership speculation over the summer.

The revolution will not be televised

But you can bet David Cameron's holiday will.

Imagine if Gordon had done this. Or if the Browns had gone in for soft focus shots of them gazing lovingly into each other's eyes like newly-weds on a sandy Suffolk beach? OK, the Camerons are better able to pull off that 'Boden catalogue couple' modelling shot, but does that mean people think he's fit to run the country? No, but with a little bit of help from these guys....

And what's that hidden in the small print? Having made great play on holidaying in Britain this year - and making sure it's being recorded for posterity - he'll be off to Turkey on a second holiday later on, with no cameras allowed. Once again, one Cameron for public consumption (like his 'look at me I'm cycling' routine), with the other one not far out of sight (like his chauffeur-driven car).

Incidentally, wasn't it convenient that Cameron's bike was stolen while he was 'popping into Tesco's to buy salad for supper'? Would he have confessed if he'd actually been buying doughnuts? Not that he seemed to have anything in his hands when he was pictured outside the shop wondering where his bike had got to... Maybe he'd eaten them before he got to the till?

Tuesday 29 July 2008

So long it's been good to know you

Departing from my usual strategy of having a bit of a look at Tom and Hopi, and maybe the other Tom too, plus the usual national journos, I'm becoming a bit more adventurous with my blog viewing. That's recess for you. (Although I would have you know that I was in the office today, when I wasn't at the dentist).

Here's one that looks good - Don Paskini (no, I've no idea either) - not least because he is saying more or less the same thing as me about the Tories and Liverpool. I don't agree with him on the Welfare Reform Green Paper 'though, and will get round to telling you why at some point.

And it's also time I gave an honourable mention to the Bristol Blogger's own site - although I daren't look at it in case he's being rude about me.

To hell with poverty

So the Tories have noticed that there are poor people living in Toxteth... Blimey, what will they come up with next?

I lived in Toxteth during the mid-1980s, as a student (1983-86 to be precise). I moved into my flat just days after the second wave of riots. There were scorch marks on the road outside from a burnt-out car. Liverpool looked like it had been hit by a nuclear strike. Whole rows of terraced houses boarded up, with only one or two occupied. Derelict tower blocks with all the windows smashed out. Shops where all the stock was kept behind iron-barred counters. Vast areas of wasteland, which you simply didn't get in the affluent South; the land wasn't worth building on, and the empty blocks and warehouses weren't worth demolishing. Unlike Bristol, which is full of people who came here to go to uni and stayed, I don't know of anyone who stayed on in Liverpool after graduating; there simply weren't any jobs there.

Since then Britain has seen a real renaissance in our major cities. (Some of which has to be credited to Michael Heseltine, one of the more interventionist Tories, but most of which has happened under a Labour Government). I used to hop over to Manchester a lot, and was back there last July for Labour's leadership conference; it's been absolutely transformed. So has Leeds. So has Newcastle/ Gateshead. Yes, there are still poor areas and disparities in wealth; nowhere is this seen more than in Bristol, where Lawrence Hill and Stoke Bishop are worlds apart.

So why have the Tories suddenly brought this up? Have they decided that being poor isn't these people's own fault after all? (That was quick!) And more to the point -what do they intend to do about the inequalities in income and life expectancies that they are highlighting? Redistribution on a massive scale? Taxing the rich so we can invest more in public services? Well-funded job creation schemes?

No, their answer is to get voluntary groups to run back-to-work centres in deprived areas; help for children who are falling behind before they even start school (that from the party that opposed Sure Start?); tougher action against crime (consisting of what, exactly?); teaching 16 year olds about their responsibilities to society (after they've already had their citizenship lessons at school?); and more support for the voluntary sector. So when you put aside the waffle and the things Labour are doing already, what do you have left? Leaving it to the churches and charities. And where and when have we heard that before? From the Tories c. 1983-86? Remind me again how successful that was?

Monday 28 July 2008

Quick and to the pointless

I should have been on University Challenge this week: identifying F1 Grand Prix circuits, post-Impressionist artworks, and bands who topped John Peel's Festive 50 (Smiths, New Order, Pulp), plus a question on the longest and shortest ever Budget speeches. I did much better than the students, and I was cleaning the fridge at the same time. They're on biology now, so I've stopped listening.

Yes Sir, I can boogie

Have decided I should have a title for my blog page, as in Ton Harris' 'And Another Thing' and Hopi Sen's 'A Blog from the Backroom' - which I inadvertently saved as 'A Blob from the Backroom' when I first added it to the links - sorry Hopi! I might call it 'Hmmm....' But maybe not.

I've decided that all politics and no play makes for a boring life, so will be adding some non-politics blogs to my links, starting with Dave Simpson's music blog for the Guardian. His inclusion is merited for at least two reasons: his favourite album is Closer by Joy Division (although mine is Unknown Pleasures, which he seems to think is wrong) and he hates the Beatles. I've tried, honestly I have - I spent three years at uni in Liverpool being blasted with the stuff everywhere I went - but sorry, I agree with every word Dave says.

It's not that I only like miserabilist stuff - the only gig I went to last year was Billy Ocean (a hero of mine from the mid-70s and it was immense fun; I am now the proud owner of a Billy Ocean mug which I accidentally took into a meeting with Ed Balls once. He didn't notice. Ed is into choral music. I had a conversation with him about it at the NPF. I don't understand at all.)

In my view the best music either has a bit of edge, a lot of soul, or a whole helping of cheese. (Or should that be Cheezly?) I have 'Yes Sir I can Boogie' on my iPod: it's a masterpiece. And Dolly Parton's 'Letter to Heaven', in which a little girl writes a letter to her Mummy in heaven, saying how much she misses her and wants to be with her, and is hit by a truck on her way to post it - I think the last line is something like 'the little girl's prayers had been answered at last'. Good old Dolly.

Sorry for laughing

You can probably expect a stream of 'interesting things I've found on other people's sites' over the next few hours.

Here's Guido Fawkes on Andrew Rossindell's belated discovery of his dog kissing photo-caption competition. Note Guido's reassurance: "Nobody is seriously suggesting you and the dog are lovers."

The man who puckers up with pooches is of course one of the Conservatives' animal welfare spokespersons*. He supports fox-hunting. And he signs himself off "Looking after ROMFORD · Fighting for ENGLAND · putting BRITAIN first!"

* They have two, one for the Home Office, one for Defra.

We are underused

Must confess to indulging in a bit of "down time" today, having had a rather full-on weekend. So far I have watched some news, read the papers, exchanged texts with the office (they avoid talking to me in person whenever possible, under the pretext of 'not wanting to disturb me'), made a blueberry and banana smoothie... and not an awful lot more. Now watching Richard and Judy. Took me a rather long time to realise that 'Judy' is now Emma Bunton. Have I missed something? They are talking about why men remember useless facts (e.g. more people get killed each year by coconuts than by sharks) and have immense fun swapping such information over a pint. And their silly video clips are quite good fun.

Speaking of trivia, at Warwick there was a huge piece of artwork covering a curved wall, which linked Deep Purple trivia to a map of the constellations. I would have worked out it related to Deep Purple even if my friend Furlong hadn't told me first, but he excelled himself in knowing why Neil Diamond was in there. (Come on Bristol Blogger - answer that one without Googling!)

I expect someone somewhere is keeping a running tally of just how many days I really take off during our '75 day recess' - well this is day one, back in office tomorrow.

The news about Weston pier is of course rather upsetting. Hadn't been there since it was revamped in April, but have had some fun times there in the past with the nephews, ten-pin bowling, on the dodgems, watching Man display his amazing ability to win on those "piles of 2ps which eventually fall over the edge" machines. (Man is a nephew, not a reference to 'mankind' which would be rather pompous of me). I rather like traditional seaside towns; you have to get into the spirit and roll your trousers up and eat chips and force the kids onto donkey rides, but they're fun.

Anyway, I have set myself a few tasks today - one of which will be to update the blog links on my site, which will no doubt take ages because I'll end up reading everything. I did actually buy a copy of Iain Dale's Guide to Political Blogging a while ago, which would have made life a lot easier, but it's obviously "In The Other Flat" - McCarthy's Law: the likelihood of it being In The Other Flat, or In The Other Office will rise in direct proportion to how much you actually want or need it at that precise moment.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Knowing me, knowing you

On Hopi Sen's blog - and yes, he confirmed to me at the weekend that his middle name really is Newmoon, because his parents were hippies, but his sister is, strangely enough, called Edith - he says he's at the NPF and expresses pleasure that some MPs have agreed to be interviewed on video for his site. I have a horrible feeling one of them might be me.

I (sort of) agreed to do so on the basis that he would edit my footage of Andrew Gwynne MP and Sarah Teather MP "cross-country ski-ing" in the Arctic. By which I mean cautiously edging one foot forward, helplessly sliding three feet back, and falling over in a heap on top of each other. Repeatedly. I have been threatening to put it on YouTube to the soundtrack of the Benny Hill Show theme. Or possibly the Banana Splits. The time may have come. I have told Andrew he has absolutely no grounds to sue.

On Tom Harris' site he lists his Top 10 blogs, and yours truly comes in at no. 7 - knocked down a few spots because I'm a 'vegetarian' supposedly... better not tell him I'm actually a vegan or I might fall out of the Top 10 altogether. Although I can't see that being a vegan is anywhere near as bad as being a Genesis fan. At no. 4 is Sadie's Tavern, which is new to me, but I like this posting. And this one. Very true and I've been tempted to say something along similar lines myself, but just can't be bothered with the comments I'd get back. Although I would just say that the piece in today's Observer was absolute.... No, I'm not going there. Not now. You can all comment on Sadie's site instead.

At home he's a tourist

This story in the Mail on Sunday is interesting, because I actually had a meeting with the Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, on the same topic last Tuesday. Also because it reflects the media's typically inconsistent approach towards immigration.

It's about a man who has lived in this country for 50 years, since he was three years old; has served in Northern Ireland as a Marine; has British parents; was a councillor, a policeman, a fireman and is now a nurse - but he's Canadian. Technically he's been here illegally and has been working illegally, although there's a rule that says if you've been here for 14 years illegally (and behaved yourself) you can apply for leave to remain and, eventually, citizenship. So he's not being kicked out, he can regularise his situation - but he has to pay £750 to do so and take the "Way of Life" citizenship test.

I've got a few cases like this at the moment. Typically they involve people from Jamaica, who came here on tourist visas decades ago and overstayed, or the children of such people (unlike in the USA, just being born in the UK doesn't automatically make you a British citizen). I've got one young woman who was born here, and is about to go to university to do an English language degree. It was only then that she discovered she wasn't a British citizen. She's got to pay two sets of fees, (levied on the basis that the process should be self-funding), adding up to over £1300, and take the test. So I raised this with Liam and he's going to see what can be done about it. Would be pretty stupid to put someone through an English language test when they're about to go off and get a degree in the subject!

More and more of these cases are coming to light as we're tightening up our border controls and immigration checks. (At which point I have to say to the PM - please don't promote Liam in the reshuffle, he's doing a phenomenal job at Immigration and we need him to stay there! But don't tell Liam I said that).

I'm seeing changes on a week by week basis - much quicker processing of applications, and definitely more deportations. For example, I'm noticing a number of cases where women are coming to see me with their young children; their partners are in jail, usually for drugs or violent offences, and are going to be deported at the end of their sentence because they're foreign nationals. This is difficult. It means the father will be separated from his child and partner. But on the other hand.... I hate the over-used phrase 'abused our hospitality', but I think most people would be of the view that we shouldn't be giving sympathetic treatment to drug-dealers, rapists and gangsters. And yet... shouldn't the child's need for a father be our priority? But then the mother and child could move abroad too (although they usually don't want to). And would he make much of a father anyway? Tricky decisions but the starting point is that if they've done the crime, they're out of here.

Anyway, the point I was making is that I'm seeing more of these cases because we've got our act together on foreign national prisoners. I'm also seeing more deportations of failed asylum seekers, some of which involve families with young kids, which again can be really difficult.

My last point though is about the way the media treat such cases. On the one hand the Mail on Sunday would be up in arms at any softening of immigration laws, and probably wouldn't have much sympathy for my Jamaican overstayers, even though some of them have been here 50 years too and have worked all their lives; they tend to be caretakers, porters, cleaners, not former Marines. But shouldn't the law apply equally to everyone? (Apart from those who really have 'abused our hospitality').

The same thing you thought hard about

NPF Part Two...

So we get to Sunday, the final day. By now most of the amendments have been finalised, with the trade unions in particular taking rather a long time to send up their plume of white smoke. We vote on what's left.

The voting works like this: with 162 members present, if an amendment gets 81 votes (50%) it is passed. If it gets more than 41 votes (between 25-50%) it goes to Conference as what's called a 'minority position' to be voted on there. Actually all of it goes to Conference, as that's our sovereign policy-making body, and in theory what is agreed at the NPF could be overturned there, but it's unlikely.

We ended the day with several minority positions: one was about law centres, and one was on directly-elected police authorities, one might have been on elected mayors - can't remember at this precise moment as I couldn't face carrying all the paperwork home on the train. And there were four issues on which activists actually won the vote in face of Government opposition: votes at 16; a wholly-elected House of Lords; regulation of estate agents; and compulsory labelling of fur products. I say Government 'opposition': on votes at 16 they wanted us to wait till their Commission reports next Spring; on House of Lords they wanted to stick to the possibly 80%, possibly 100% version approved by MPs; on estate agents they said they were doing things already; and on labelling fur there was some half-hearted stuff about EU rules making it difficult.

So - this doesn't mean that it's Labour policy yet to introduce votes at 16 and have a wholly-elected House of Lords, but unless something very unusual happens at Conference, it will be. Particularly pleased with votes at 16 - I'd been urging them all weekend to stick to their guns and take it to a vote, and was the only MP to break ranks and support it (although a few Ministers were secretly delighted with the result). A good job done by the youth reps, who even managed to persuade the unions to back them at the last moment. Future Government ministers, no doubt. And the Youth Parliament will be happy too.

This, and all the stuff that was agreed behind the scenes will no doubt appear somewhere soon as 'the Warwick Agreement Mark II'. Lots of stuff on skills, apprenticeships, public procurement, pensions, etc from the unions, and housing, climate change, child poverty and health from the constituencies, to name just a few issues. And in the small print somewhere will be some wording on therapeutic services for abused children, an "unconditional" ban on seal products, support for academies, encouraging young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to volunteer, enforcement of the hunting ban, post-16 education, and a few other things... which will be mine.

Hope you're reading this Chris - the hunting ban discussions were particularly protracted because we were talking to Defra, and they're not responsible for prosecutions, but Hilary Benn managed to track down Vernon Coaker, the Home Office Minister, and between us all we managed to come up with some wording which reflects the fact that although there have been prosecutions to date (27 I think, or 29), many people feel that the law is being broken with impunity and we need to get tougher on those who do so.

So - a good weekend's work.

Why do you do this to yourself?

Warning - for anoraks only!

I'm something a veteran of Labour's National Policy Forum, having not just been there for Warwick One (something akin in recent Labour mythology to Manchester Free Trade Hall, June '76 - although actually top spot probably goes to the Royal Festival Hall May 1997: "a new dawn has broken, has it not" and so on), but also at the previous finales at Exeter and Durham.

Have just got back from Warwick Two, which went far more smoothly than the previous NPFs, although there still weren't many members of the Party's staff who actually got any sleep on Friday or Saturday. Decisions are made, discussions had, and deals done well into the night - which means that staff then have to stay up until the early dawn producing yet another paper mountain of endorsed and undendorsed amendments.

For those unfamiliar with the NPF, it's composed of the following: 5 constituency reps elected from each region/ nation, plus 2 elected by regional conferences: so that's 77 ordinary party members (of which I used to be one, from 1998 till 2005). Trade unions have 30 places, and there are a few places for local government, the Co-op party, the socialist societies. There are, I think, 8 places for MPs, 3 for MEPs and a couple for peers. Labour's National Executive Committee are all members of the NPF, and then there are some Government places.

There's a rolling process (called 'Partnership in Power') over a couple of years, during which 6 policy documents are discussed by the party (and in year one, by outside interests too). At the end of the process NPF members get to submit amendments based on those discussions, and we all get together over a weekend to debate, decide and then vote on them. There were 4000+ amendments this time round. Obviously we can't get through all 4000 in the weekend, so the first step is for the Joint Policy Committee (basically consisting of some reps from each section of the NPF) gives its seal of approval to all the non-contentious wording.

Then there are discussions at the NPF itself on what's left, between the movers of the amendments and a Minister (or Ministers - my first one was on academies, which was grouped with several others on the same topic; we ended up with 20 of us in a room that would have comfortably held 8, with Jim Knight, Andrew Adonis and Ed Balls - who didn't even get a seat. Good discussion though). By Friday night a lot of amendments have been sorted, with 'consensus wording' agreed. But there are still a lot of outstanding issues; as Saturday goes on it's quite fun to sit back in the lounge bar and watch spads running back and forth, trying to find members and ministers so they can be locked into a non-smoke-filled room to hammer out a consensus.

Incidentally, the Sunday Times has a stupid speculative report today about Miliband Senior being seen - shock, horror! - talking to two trade union leaders in the bar. Well he did, but not for very long - and every single member of the Cabinet was at Warwick (except possibly Andy Burnham and Paul Murphy; I didn't see them). They almost certainly all spoke to trade union leaders too. That's what we do at such gatherings; talk to each other. And some people even have a drink too.

Anyway, that's part one of how the NPF works.... will do a separate post on what happens next, as this one is going on a bit...

Wednesday 23 July 2008

The name of the game

"LAST day of term, so the Chief Whip is letting us all bring in games. I’ve brought a train set (obviously), Alistair Darling’s brought in Monopoly, Alan Johnson’s got Operation, David Miliband has Risk, Des Browne’s brought in an Action Man, etc, etc…"

That's from Tom Harris' blog - which I discovered just after I'd started to post something along similar lines yesterday, only I was going to say I'd brought in my Kerplunk! game. So if Tom has a train set, Alan's in the operating theatre, Des is playing action man, what does my choice say about my work in Parliament? That I'm scared of losing my marbles?


Doing the rounds at Westminster... Project Make McCain Exciting.

It's a man's, man's, man's world

David Willets from the Tory shadow cabinet speaking on apprenticeships in today's Telegraph:

"If we want stable families there has to be a man holding down a good job on a decent wage."

Quite how he squares this with his 'feminist manifesto' applauded by Polly Toynbee in 2003, I'm not sure. Or is this simply another example of how, having established the 'Cuddly Conservative' brand, the party is now rapidly reverting to type?

Another girl, another planet

Something else I should have added to my list of tasks for recess: adding more links to my blog page. I've just discovered, which I assume is quite new seeing as the magazine is only a couple of issues old.

Ian Cawsey MP is blogging about his trip to Poland with the Holocaust Educational Trust (can I recommend it to a few of my readers?); Douglas Carswell MP is comparing Ofcom's ruling on "The Great Global Warming Swindle" to the Salem Witch Trials (obviously yet another cuddly Conservative); John Redwood MP is complaining he hasn't got anything to do during recess; and Nadine Dorries MP has been 'losing it'.

Two little Hitlers

I can see a successor to the 'Hitler was a vegetarian' line... How long before advocates of alternative medicine are dismissed with the two damning words: 'Radovan Karadzic'?

Conversation intercom

I've always enjoyed reading stuff by Sarfraz Manzoor, the some time Guardian/ Observer columnist - it's quite bizarre reading the memoirs of someone who went to the same Sixth Form College as you, got the same bus to town (the number 6), hung out in the same coffee shop (Greenfields, although in my case 'hanging out' meant working there, with my nan. And it was called the Golden Egg in my day).

He's got an interesting piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free site at the moment. I kind of know what he's saying, but I think Bochi and theloonyfromCatford hit the nail on the head.

Speaking of lovable Tories, here's an interesting extract from a recent Westminster Hall debate on Reconstructing Afghanistan. Interesting in that many people believe Hansard is a verbatim report of what is said in a debate. It's not: our incoherent outpourings are cleaned up, clarified, and generally reconstructed until they are fit for human consumption.

Robert Smith (Lib Dem): I also want to reinforce the issue of the status of women. Failing to engage the women of Afghanistan means denying half the resource of the country to its development and its future. We saw many positive things in that context. We visited the microfinance initiative in Kabul and saw women entrepreneurs. Women got the microfinance loans, because they could be trusted to repay them. The men were far too unreliable a business investment.
Nicholas Soames Nonsense
Robert Smith: Mr. Soames says from a sedentary position, "Oh, balls," but that was the practical reality on the ground that was discovered.
Tobias Ellwood I am not sure he said that.
Robert Smith Perhaps he did not; it was something to that effect.
Martyn Jones (the Chairman) Order. The hon. Gentleman must have misheard.
Robert Smith I must have misheard him, yes.

I was there for this debate. Robert Smith didn't mishear (and he knows he didn't). And what he was saying has been the case in every developing country I've visited. Take the leading microfinance institution Grameen Bank, for example; 97% of its customers are women and they're very reluctant to lend to men.

I've questioned this on my visits, and have been fascinated as to the impact it must have on gender relations - for example, I met a woman in Bangladesh who had started off with a small loan, bought some chickens, ended up buying a taxi, then some land, and proudly showed me the house she had built for her family - and then the one she had built for her son, and then the one she had built for her daughter. I asked what her husband thought about her being the breadwinner. Her response was a mixture of 'who knows' and 'who cares'!

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Right now and not later

So what do MPs do during recess? Well I can't speak for anyone else but here are some of the things I've got lined up:

  • finishing off things in Westminster, GOTV on the phones for Glasgow East, then Labour National Policy Forum in Warwick (that's this week taken care of);
  • touring the Severn Estuary with the Environment Agency to see the areas which environmentalists are concerned would be affected by the building of the Severn Barrage;
  • spending a day with an RSPCA inspector;
  • visiting Yarlswood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire to see the conditions in which people (especially children) facing deportation are held;
  • going out on patrol with the Vice Squad;
  • finalising this year's Parliamentary report, and no doubt hand-delivering rather a lot of them;
  • organising a survey of constituents on asylum/ immigration issues (tricky to get this right, but we're getting there) and responding to those who completed my recent survey on anti-social behaviour;
  • attending the Balloon fiesta, St Marks Road street party, Amnesty's garden party, the Harbour festival, open day at the Felix Rd Adventure Playground, the opening ceremony of the School Olympics, and no doubt other events that haven't appeared in the diary yet;
  • meeting the Soil Association in Bristol to discuss organic food and farming (they don't know this yet, but I hope they agree);
  • cycling to the office at least some of the time, and finally doing the Bristol-Bath cycle path trip (also hoping to do a 'Bikeability' cycling proficiency course - I think I need it!);
  • getting to grips with technology - sorting out wireless connection in office, getting PDA working again (it's only been six months), downloading videos and pics from camera and onto website; finding out what else my mobile phone can do, etc, etc;
  • trading my car in for a greener model (although I suppose you can't get much greener than the current one, seeing as it doesn't go anywhere at all at the moment);
  • generally harrassing constituency office staff who usually only have to put up with me for fleeting moments between engagements on a Friday - after a week or two they will start suggesting that I should 'take a day or two off to enjoy myself";
  • attending a Somali community event on knife crime;
  • doing another walkabout in Stockwood;
  • paying another visit to the Refugee Drop-In Centre;
  • attending a citizenship ceremony;
  • watching women play football at the Netham on a Sunday morning - I don't think I'm expected to join in;
  • visiting Remploy's new job centre in Bristol, which helps people with disabilities find work;
  • launching a local consultation on the Welfare Reform Green Paper (e.g. with drug treatment agencies, Job Centre Plus, disability organisations, the mental health trust);
  • organising ministerial visits: Tom Harris is coming in the autumn to talk trains, and we've got some others at the planning stage, including, I hope, the Immigration Minister;
  • doing the groundwork for debates in the autumn: report stage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, Children and Young Persons Bill, Climate Change Bill; adjournment debate on children with parents in custody (long overdue); reading latest stuff on child poverty in prep for Queen's Speech debates and/ or Pre-Budget Report; and possibly a Defra debate on food production to mark World Vegan Day (only toying with this idea at the moment);
  • finishing off remaining sections on website - e.g. Local Heroes, online schools surgery - and maybe even blogging a bit;
  • holding some surgeries, sending out letters, and all the usual stuff;
  • taking two or three nephews to the Street Art exhibition at Tate Modern;
  • taking two nieces and one or two nephews (different ones - younger, equally adorable) to Kew Gardens to do the Treetop Walk;
  • trying to make sushi with the stuff I bought in December (the mat, the seaweed, the rice, the vinegar, everything - I'm almost definitely not going to be very good at it);
  • at least making a start on the West Wing set (series 1-7) which was purchased a year ago and is still in its cellophane;
  • Labour Conference in Manchester (five days in late September);
  • finally finishing the Ph.D. thesis I started in 1974 or thereabouts ...(who am I kidding?);
  • white-water rafting down the Zambezi and over Victoria Falls. Possibly.


In the interests of openness, seeing as Freedom2Choose restrict access to their site to those who agree with them, here's some more extracts (bad spelling and typos theirs, not mine). They've also been urging their members to vote in my website poll on CCTV cameras in Bristol - which was fairly obvious given the way the pendulum had suddenly started swinging.

"If she is foolish enough to argue that comparing labour policy to National Socialism is wrong and scaremongering then I'm afraid that her stand is indefensable, historical fact bears that out with a simple comparison of policies".

"Operation Barbarossa was Hitler's invasion of Russia, Hitler coined the term Totaleskrieg. It is historical fact, just as my points in reply to Mz Mcarthurs point are historical fact, they cannot be disputed and to try to do so would make her look like a nazi sypathiser."

"I have updated some of the points already made so please keep that in mind and I am still digesting Scaemes comments with a view to limiting Kerry's response while still beating the point she has made any thoughts on that would be helpful."

"[Suggested comment:] 'Why are you arguing about the Nazis Kerry? While I concede that the history of the Third Reich and Hitler's policies have a valuable place in the history of polititics and how they should not be conducted but where is the relevence here?'

I think that turns the issue around to her and kills the Nazi argument dead."

"I tend to agree with the above, although many can see the parallels with Hitlers SBE & health fanaticism, when dealing with people like McCarthy & other politicians & antis it's better not to give them the chance to fob us off as loonies, and I think F2c should always be promoted for what it is a PRO-CHOICE organisation.

I know it's hard not to get wound up, I get angrier by the day, but I'd leave out any reference to Hitler or nazi and just stick to a polite letter and present them with the evidence which totally debunks ASH.

Although I've referred to the SBE as a nazi policy on here, I haven't done so when writing letters. Any mentioin of Hitler or nazi just plays into their hands, to them mentioning these things, you've lost the argument before you started."

Monday 21 July 2008

Holidays in the sun

I shared a lift with a Labour MP earlier today; he's off to his caravan in Skegness for his holidays as usual. He insists the sun will shine. Proof if it were needed that Trad Labour is alive and kicking, and that not everyone will be sipping Chianti and eating prosciutto in the Tuscan hills. I've been to Skegness on a number of occasions. I've even eaten chips on the seafront in the pouring rain there. The sun has never shone for me in Skeggy. Central Region Labour Conference by the sea in February... Those were the days.

Gordon is of course spending his hols in Southwold, which hosted the Latitude festival with Franz Ferdinand headlining this weekend. I was supposed to be going to Truck to see the Lemonheads, but the friends with the new baby pulled out and the other friends were playing at Bradfest in Milton Keynes, so I ended up there, watching them and having a picnic. So, no Evan Dando (although, interestingly, two small blond boys who were both named after him.) Which gives me an excuse to post a picture. OK, a feeble excuse, but I think we've had enough cute animal pics and kiwi fruit for the time being. And he might just have himself on Google alert.

Coming tomorrow: a post about the draft Marine Bill, tenuously linked to a picture of Keanu Reeves emerging from the sea in a wetsuit with a surfboard under his arm.


The Bristol branch of Amnesty International is looking for a new person to co-ordinate their death penalty campaign. Also, it's their Goldney Garden Party on August 3rd, 1.30pm to 5.30pm.

The truth is so boring

Here's the original Charlie Brooker article if that has sparked your interest. (Note the deliberate avoidance of certain key phrases... I have enough on my plate at the moment).

Another article which has stuck in my mind, especially now that I've seen a little of the programme in question, is his review of the Tribal Wives programme. He makes a fair point, doesn't he?

Joy Division oven gloves

Charlie Brooker is explaining in the Guardian today how to ensure your blog gets lots of hits by using certain popular search terms. This might have been news to me a few weeks ago.

Reasons to be cheerful

There's a poster I keep seeing in tube stations across London, featuring a young man with a curly quiff. It's advertising Grease: the Musical, "starring Ray Quinn as Doody". Not Danny. Not Kenickie. Doody.

I get a disproportionate sense of pleasure every time I see it. Cheers me up no end.

Saturday 19 July 2008

Oliver's army

I'm sure most of you have better things to do at 2am than read about Oliver Cromwell on Wikipedia, but I don't. In doing so I came across this guy - Praise-God Barebone - surely the best name for an MP ever? His 1643 work, "A Reply to the Frivolous and Impertinent answer of R.B. and E.B. to the Discourse of P.B." sounds like an absolute classic.

It gets better. Anyone guess what he named his son? Hath Christ Not Died for Thee Thou Wouldst Be Damned Barebone. In later life Hath Christ Not Died for Thee Thou Wouldst Be Damned did a Zowie (Joe) Bowie and changed his name to Nicholas. Can't really blame him.

My quest for further information led me to this article, but then I read the disclaimer - and was rather disappointed.

Can't get there from here

I tried uploading this as a video but it didn't work; maybe clicking here will?
I don't think he quite knows where he's going.

Friday 18 July 2008

Police and thieves

So today's crime survey shows that crime fell by 10 per cent in England and Wales (the equivalent of 1 million crimes) last year. That's a 48% drop in crime since it peaked in 1995, which gives us the longest recorded period of falling crime in living memory. Good news you might think. And how does the media report it? Well the Guardian says "Crime rates expected to soar as economic difficulties deepen" and the Times worries that "Economic gloom could reverse the downward trend in recorded crime". The Times then goes on to say that "despite falls in overall crime, almost two thirds of people thought that it was rising". Well I wonder why that is? Couldn't have anything to do with the way it's reported, could it?

Devil woman

I think all MPs received this email today as it's not from a constituent.

Dear Kerry McCarthy

Harriet Harman's Hate Speech

At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday July 9th 2008 Harriet Harman made a comment which was offensive and discriminatory. Describing what will happen if she becomes Prime Minister, Harriet Harman said that ‘There aren’t enough airports in the country for all the men who would want to flee the country’.

Many attempt to hide their hate speech by stating it was only a joke.

There is a very good definition of Hate Speech on wikipedia. The definition includes intimidating or attempting to incite prejudicial action against a group of people based upon various criteria, including gender. Think about that for a moment. In my humble opinion, Harriet Harman’s statement is intimidating, and a statement of intent to take prejudicial action against men based purely on their gender.

If you still do not think it is hate speech, try this simple test. Say out loud ‘ There aren’t enough airports in the country for all the X who would want to flee the country’ Now repeat that remark a few times, replacing X with a different word each time from this list: Men, Women, Asians, Jews, Gypsies, Moslems, Black people.

Harriet Harman has already stated her intention to take positive action (i.e. discriminate) against men in the job market. It is enough to make one wonder what else Harman has in store for us.

Can’t say I fancy being intimidated into leaving the country just because of my gender. This sounds like another step towards Bully Britain to me!

Thursday 17 July 2008

Strange fruit

Regular readers will know that I have an unfortunate habit of upsetting Tory farmers at Defra questions. They will also know there's been a bit of an issue locally about a grocer who got into trouble with the Rural Payments Agency for selling kiwi fruits which were smaller than they should be. Well I finally got round to raising it at Defra questions today. I was on the order paper at Q14 but had to jump in on an earlier question about regulation as I calculated (correctly it turned out) that they wouldn't quite make it to me. So my question was something along the lines of, isn't this, in an era of rising food prices and growing food shortages, EU regulation gone mad and can't we trust it to the consumer to decide how big a kiwi he/she wants to buy? Cue cheers from the Tory benches and cries of 'come and join us!' Oh dear.

In shreds

Interesting breaking story in tonight's Evening Standard. As it says, Labour MPs support the PLP office - which provides Labour MPs with political briefings, for example before Opposition Day debates, and advice on campaigning - out of their own salaries, to the tune of some £2000 p.a..

According to the Standard, however, 78 Conservative MPs - including Cameron - have been funding their equivalent, the PRU, from their expenses. (Not allowed. Definitely not).

Meanwhile the Times is reporting that Tory MPs are paying PR firms up to £10,000 p.a. from their staffing allowances. (Not money well spent, judging from the fact that I've barely heard of some of those MPs mentioned in the article). And a dozen Tory MPs are paying their wives up to £40,000 to act as 'executive secretaries'.

I must be on a suicide mission tonight. Smoking and MPs expenses.... And I logged on with the intention of talking about kiwi fruit. That one will have to wait.

Idiot wind

As in 'someone's got it in for me....'

Someone has emailed me a few choice extracts from the freedom2choose website. (You'll have to register if you want to see more - they're worried about 'spammers and other dodgy posting spoiling your enjoyment' - aren't we all).

What is so bizarre is that they really believe they're winning the argument because the 'antis' aren't posting; no, it's not that at all - they just have far more productive things to do, like convincing people that the earth isn't really flat and that pigs generally speaking don't have wings.

Here's a selection....

"Final thing I've noticed on the media comments/blogs is that we're winning... easily. The anti-smokers fire off a few posts on the blogs but the clarity and solidity of our arguments are winning through and the antis dry up very quickly. Even MP Kerry McCarthy is really subdued within 24 hours of argument. She's really in a tizz after her initial puff, bluster and side-swipes her arguments fizzled out quicker than a Party popper. Hope we can do that with the rest of her colleagues."

I've posted too on the Losers, sorry Labour MP's blog. She's come back twice to titter like a twit about how bizzy she is and is waiting for the tidal wave to abate before she replies (ie. gets researchers to respond). We all know the generalised, bland opaque answers we're going to get! Which will certainly kick me off into a red mist again as her original disgustingly one-sided comment did."

"Kerry McCarthy is getting hammered (smiley face icon)"

Also some stuff about how I'm going to delete all the comments - no, unlike freedom2choose I don't only accept comments from people who agree with me - and why the Nazi references are entirely appropriate and not at all distasteful. Nice people.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

The "Queen" is dead

About a week ago I had a very vivid dream, in which a radio announcer proclaimed "Margaret Thatcher has died". It was so vivid it woke me up, and I switched on the radio, only to get someone talking about pigs on Farming Today. But here's something to ponder.... Should Margaret Thatcher have a state funeral? You have a day left to vote.

Monday 14 July 2008

Meat is murder

Which means, I suppose, that milk must be manslaughter... I see my good comrade Tom Harris has sparked something of a debate on his website with a post entitled "In Praise of McDonald's". And yes, it didn't take very long at all before someone came up with the 'Hitler was a vegetarian' line.

Somewhere in the comments section it mentions the lack of vegetarian MPs. I told Viva! ages ago I'd try to get them a list of names, as they only list the two Tonys - Banks and Benn - on their website. (Neither of them MPs anymore of course). There are actually quite a lot of us. And loads in the 'but I eat fish' category.

Perfect skin

From today's Indy: Smythson's are selling luxury gifts made from the skin of rare lizards, which are allegedly often skinned alive. And their creative director, often credited with revitalising the brand, is....?

Sunday 13 July 2008

Eat y'self fitter (3)

According to the health mag enclosed with today's Observer, they've introduced a new scheme to combat obesity in Japan. (Didn't realise it was much of a problem there, apart from sumo wrestlers, who want to be that way). Apparently anyone between the ages of 40 and 74 with a waist over 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women will be given three months to shape up under their own steam. If that doesn't work, the metabo', as the tubby are known in Japan,then get compulsory dieting guidance, with re-education for repeat offenders and financial penalties for employers. Here's an older article from when the scheme was first announced. (33.5 inches doesn't seem very big at all to me, but maybe Japanese men are smaller in general?) The idea is to reduce obesity by 25% within 7 years.

I can just imagine the response if the Government tried to introduce something similar in the UK. Although I guess the politicians would have to set an example by going first. The thought of the like of Nicholas Soames having to sign up is almost enough to convince me it's a good idea.

Weird fishes

I must come up with some pictures of things other than cute animals to post. There is a danger of me coming across as 'an animal lover' (or descending into Widdy Web territory - she has a section of her website devoted to her cats). I'm not actually that interested in animals; I just think we should treat them well and not eat them.

Anyway, I've been invited on a trip. Actually I've been invited on quite a few trips, including one to Dubai/ Abu Dhabi which sounds like the ultimate jolly, albeit my idea of hell. (I turned that one down - what's to investigate there - shopping, sun, sea and sand? The gross waste of natural resources in creating indoor ski mountains and artificial islands shaped like palm trees?)

The invitation I'm thinking of taking up is from IFAW. They want to take some MPs on a boat during recess to show how scientific research can be carried out on whales without harming them - i.e. not like the Japanese. They've stressed that this would be very much a working holiday, and MPs will be expected to lend a hand on the boat. (They don't realise they've invited someone who can't even change the vacuum cleaner nozzle without calling for assistance). Could turn out to be a fascinating experience.

And now it definitely is time for bed.

First of the gang to die

It's gone 3am but I'm suffering one of my periodic bouts of insomnia and have given up trying to get to sleep. BBC News 24 is trailing a Government announcement due later this week on new measures to tackle knife crime. It's an issue I've felt I ought to say something about on this blog, but it's difficult to get beyond the 'isn't it dreadful and something ought to be done about it' stage. And yes, I know, people look to politicians to come up with the answers, but sometimes it's not as easy as that. Certainly in Bristol there has been some good work involving ex-gang members and young people talking about gun crime, knife crime and drugs, and I've met with a number of community activists over recent months to discuss what more can be done. (Things like providing better role models, mentoring, raising aspirations, giving young people places to go and things to do). I've discussed the issue with school pupils too but, as ever, that doesn't mean I'm speaking to the right young people. That's why I found Erwin James' piece in Saturday's Guardian fascinating as he actually talks to young offenders serving prison sentences for knife-related offences. I've long been a fan of his writing; I used to read his A Life Inside columns avidly, and bought several copies as presents for people when they were made into a book. He now has a blog, which should be worth keeping an eye on.

On Friday I went to the official opening of Bristol Metropolitan College (formerly Whitefield Fishponds School). The entertainment included some drumming, singing, Cuban dancing and - my favourite - a group of young rap dancers. Some of them were adorable - although I'm sure they wouldn't thank me for saying it - including young Elijah who did a back-flip and stole the show. (I told him I'd mention him on my website. He's definitely a star in the making.)

The performance made me think. The young dancers were mimicking gang culture; bandanas covering the lower half of their faces, and squaring up to each other with their dance moves . Does this matter? It's an old debate of course, whether rap music glorifies guns and violence (not to mention degrading women), and whether young people treat this just as escapist entertainment or seek to emulate the lifestyle. Or are they drawn to the music because it records their own experiences? I think it's probably the latter.

Difficult territory for a politician though; David Cameron got into a little bit of trouble a couple of years ago for saying rap music 'encourages young people to carry guns and knives'. As that article points out, however, it's not unique to rap music: I could point to the Clash's Last Gang in Town, or Morrissey's First of the Gang to Die; they're not glorifying gang violence, but could perhaps be accused of romanticising it, even though both songs have an anti-gang message. But unwittingly encouraging young people to take up knives and join gangs? No. (Actually there are endless Clash songs which could be cited: what about Guns of Brixton? Tho' I think that got a bit of stick at the time).

I'm not familiar enough with rap music to judge whether it's much different; most of the stuff I hear tends to be about girls and cars and drinking Krystal and flashing lots of money around. Which might encourage materialism and misogyny, but not violence. Eminem is a comic book genius, and I can't believe anyone takes him seriously. And a lot of the rappers in the charts are just big softies. I'm inclined to the view that there's not really any difference between the young lads in their bandanas and my contemporaries scrawling 'Anarchy' and 'Destroy' on their leather jackets. Whatever leads them to take up knives, I don't think it's the music they listen to.

It's now nearly 4.30am - where did the time go? That's what happens when you start surfing. Time for bed.

It's a sin

Had a number of things I was going to blog about tonight, but got sidetracked by responding to comments instead. Anyway, here's one for starters. I was listening to Any Questions earlier today, and thought John Harris was pretty good on the issue of the registrar who didn't want to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies because of her Christian beliefs.Here's the Observer on it, and, in the interests of fairness, the Daily Mail.

John Harris asked why someone's beliefs should be accorded more respect because they're based on a belief in God. He gave the example of what would happen if he, as a vegetarian, got a job on the tills at Tesco's and refused to scan any meat that came through. His employers would obviously be entitled to say that he wasn't right for the job. He admitted it wasn't the best analogy, but the underlying point he makes is valid. (Perhaps a better analogy would be a vegetarian chef in a restaurant; if they could be kept fully occupied just doing the desserts and salads, do they have a right to demand this? Or should they just go get a job in a vegetarian restaurant instead?)

Actually, that reminds me that as a newish MP I was roped in at the very last moment to serve on an SI committee. It was only when I arrived that I realised it was something to do with giving milk to school pupils in certain parts of the country (or something like that). On the one hand, I didn't agree with it; on the other, it seemed a pretty trivial issue to rebel on. I'd been roped in by the whip as a last minute substitute, on the understanding I could leave if all the other members turned up, to take part in a debate in the Chamber. They all did, so I was allowed to scarper, and didn't have to make that decision. But if I had, would my 'issue of conscience' have been given the same respect as that of a Catholic who is anti-abortion? (Even I'm not sure if it should be; I feel strongly enough about not drinking milk to have foregone it for nearly 17 years but I don't recoil in horror whenever I walk past the dairy section in a supermarket. I accept that most people drink it, and will continue to do so - 'though that doesn't stop me doing my little bit to make the case for turning vegan on this blog).

The 'is being a vegan on a par with being a Catholic' issue hasn't come up again. Yet. Or if it's vegetarians cf. Catholics, I guess it's vegans cf. members of Opus Dei?

Friday 11 July 2008


And here's some breaking news from the BBC website...

Thursday 10 July 2008

You can't always get what you want

Diane Abbott has just said something quite brave. About people who come to see her because they're living in an overcrowded council flat with a couple of kids, and need rehousing; but then they keep having more kids.

I think my most extreme case, when I was a councillor, so not in Bristol, was a couple with six young kids, expecting their seventh, living on the top floor of a tower block, wanting to be rehoused. He was long-term unemployed, with no prospect of work - or rather, no interest in seeking work because he'd never have been able to find something that paid well enough for him to support such a large family. (This was in the days before tax credits).

Do we say that they have exactly the same right as anyone else to have as many children as they want? Or are they being totally irresponsible? And to those who would opt for the first of those two responses, isn't it the case that many parents on relatively modest incomes limit their family size because they can't afford a bigger house or more kids? And if you take the latter view, what do you do about it? Penalise the parents, you simply up penalising the children - and in all likelihood condemn them to going down the same route as their parents when they're adults.

Meanwhile, Diane Abbott has just urged the Cheeky Girls to reveal more about their views on the economy...

Kill the poor (2)

I'm going to come back on some of the comments on the original Kill the Poor post at some point - probably Saturday night, sad person that I am - but 90% of my attention is dedicated to watching the boss on QT, so can't do anything do intellectually strenuous at the moment. (Very good on global food price rises I thought. And no, he won't be reading this...)

In the meantime, Alice Miles has an interesting take on Cameron's comments (scroll down a few paras past all the stuff about bishops). Actually, if you want to know what I think you might as well just read what I said in yesterday's debate.

Question Time just finished now and that Andrew Neil programme has started. (Really upping the intellectual stakes this week - expert political commentary from the Cheeky Girls). Can I just say - because absolutely no-one else seems to be saying it - Gordon did not 'liken himself to Heathcliff'! It was a joke. A joke!

In the same New Statesman interview Gordon says he likes reading Ian Rankin novels. I've only read one. I bought it at an airport, only to discover it was about the DFID PPS commiting suicide by throwing himself off Edinburgh Castle. (Or was it murder?) Cheery stuff, and obviously a perfect choice of holiday reading for me.

Freak Scene

"By-election stage collapse fears" reports the BBC. Nothing to do with saving DD embarrassment, I'm sure.

Keeping two chevrons apart

While I was looking at Nad's website to see what she was saying on the abortion issue, I also came across this:

"If I have achieved anything as a blogger, it has been my ability to unite left wing bloggers, who are by nature a divided and argumentative group (as one recently told me).Their poor writing, viscious* invective, bad language and inter-group warfare fades into nothing whenever my name is mentioned or written about, as they all dive in for the attack. I am apparently the absolute hate figure of the left wing bloggers. Now, why would that be I wonder?

If anyone is interested by the way, May was a record month with 674,000 hits - June was down a bit to 547,000.

I can't actually believe those figures - what's going on?"

Yeah, but I get more comments than she does.

* Her spelling, not mine!


I've just received a letter from Frank Dobson, Patricia Hewitt and Christine McCafferty about some amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which is due back in the Commons on Monday for its report stage and Third Reading.

At the Committee stage, some of which was heard on the floor of the House so as to allow for free votes, there was an attempt to reduce the abortion time limit, which failed. Now those who opposed reducing the time limit are putting forward amendments which will remove the "clinically unnecessary restrictions which cause delay in abortions". (I'm quoting from their letter).

The new clauses are:
- to allow an abortion if a doctor certifies that the pregnancy has not exceeded its 24th week
- to permit suitably trained nurses and midwives to carry out certain abortions
- to allow abortions to take place in primary care premises
- to allow women to choose to be at home to complete the last stage of early medical abortion
- to require anti-abortion organisations to make clear they do not offer abortion services or neutral counselling

Not all these amendments will necessarily be selected for debate; that's up to the Speaker and partly depends on what other amendments have been submitted. There will presumably be free votes everything.

The first new clause is probably the most controversial. It removes the need for 2 medical practitioners to consent to a woman having a termination. This will no doubt lead to accusations that we're allowing 'abortion on demand'. The truth is, however, that the current restrictions don't stop women getting abortions; they just make it difficult, humiliating and more stressful for them to do so. If you want to check out all the amendments you can look at the Public Bill Committee pages - and then click on Amendment Papers and Proceedings. Other amendments worth noting: Nadine Dorries is calling again for a reduction to 20 weeks, and Edward Leigh wants to make women to have "a seven-day cooling-off period" and counselling before they go ahead with a termination (which I think implies they're being a bit emotional and irrational when they first make the decision, doesn't it?).

Evan Harris and John Bercow have also tabled amendments along similar lines. Nadine Dorries says on her blog "I would have thought that it would be hard to beat Evan Harris in his evangelical pursuit of gynaecological blood sports" and then goes to to imply that John Bercow has. Bercow also attracts flak on Conservative Home.

There are also amendments on the substantive issues in the bill - i.e. fertilisation treatment and embryology - but I think these will be overshadowed by the abortion debate.

Out come the freaks*

A quick peek at Tom's blog reminded me that tomorrow is DD's moment of glory. I'd forgotten, along with virtually everyone else.

Here is the full list of candidates, with links to some of the more 'interesting' ones.

Grace Christine Astley - Independent
David Laurence Bishop - Church of the Militant Elvis Party
Ronnie Carroll - Make Politicians History
Mad Cow-Girl - The Official Monster Raving Loony Party
David Craig - Independent
Herbert Winford Crossman - Independent
Tess Culnane - National Front Britain for the British
Thomas Faithful Darwood - Independent (
David Michael Davis - Conservative
Tony Farnon - Independent
Eamonn "Fitzy" Fitzpatrick - Independent
Christopher Mark Foren - Independent
Gemma Dawn Garrett - Miss Great Britain Party
George Hargreaves - Christian Party
Hamish Howitt - Freedom 4 Choice
David Icke - No party listed
John Nicholson - Independent
Shan Oakes - Green Party
David Pinder - The New Party
Joanne Robinson - English Democrats: Putting England First
Jill Saward - Independent
Norman Scarth - Independent
Walter Edward Sweeney - Independent
Christopher John Talbot - Socialist Equality Party
John Randle Upex - Independent
Greg Wood - Independent

According to the BBC webste, the Church of the Militant Elvis Party candidate, "Lord Biro", 'wants to overthrow the capitalist state, which he blames for turning the singer Elvis Presley into a "fat media joke". He thinks US President George W Bush is the anti-Christ who will trigger Armageddon. Other policies include imprisoning Cherie Blair to stop her reporting details of her sex life and placing CCTV cameras in Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's bedroom.'

DD is going to win, of course. But what's the turnout going to be like? And just who from this talented field is going to come last?

(*Jill Saward excepted. I'd vote Jill.)

That joke isn't funny anymore

Just for the record - it's gone 1am and News 24 is on in the background...

Today was a mixed bag - started off sponsoring a Save the Children knitting session, which I've mentioned several times on here before (see the David Drew pics). I persuaded Ed Balls to turn up; he's definitely a much better knitter than me, which isn't saying much. Meg Munn, the Foreign Office Minister, was there too, and Malcolm Bruce, chair of the International Development Select Committee. Most unlikely knitter was ex-miner Dave Anderson, MP for Blaydon; he turned up with a bag of hats knitted by his caseworker's mother, but ended up being persuaded to pick up some needles himself.

Then had to finish off my child poverty speech - bit of a rush job. Then a statutory instrument on DFID payments to the World Bank, then the tail end of a debate called by David Drew on the economic impact of the Severn Barrage, in time to hear the Minister's response, and then my own debate; "The Role of Local Authorities in Tackling Child Poverty". John Battle - one of my favourite MPs - turned up to support me, and I tried, but failed to get Oliver Letwin to explain what Cameron meant by his speech on poverty earlier this week.

Rest of the day, apart from a few votes, was mostly talking transport with people, including dinner with the Passenger Transport Executive Group. (Is Bristol ever going to join their ranks?) Also finally managed to have a chat with Kim Howells, the Foreign Office Minister, about his recent visit to Somaliland; have been trying to collar him in the division lobby for ages. Between votes had a 'why do we do it' chat with fellow blogger Tom Harris in the tearoom, and he explained to me what a 'lard monster' is. And Harry Cohen told me a joke: where does Amy Winehouse get on the tube? High Barnet!

Tomorrow is all about catching up with emails and post, although I'm number 16 at Treasury Qs (which means I'll be on standby but unlikely to be called - I'm asking about the Global Carbon Finance Project) and then a 3 hour Westminster Hall debate on Afghanistan in the afternoon.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Rebel without a pause

Director/ actor Steven Berkoff reports in the Spectator on this conversation between himself and David Cameron:

‘I have just directed the stage version of the famous movie On the Waterfront.'

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘I remember it well… and how good James Dean was.’

And no, it's not a mistake that anyone could make.

Platform blues

Michael Fabricant must have made Simon Hoggart's day today at transport questions.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady understand that it is not much fun standing on a platform and a high-speed train sucks you off because of the turbulence —[Laughter]— or whatever. The important thing is that the train should stop, so will she bear in mind the fact that high-speed trains should go not just from major centres of population to other major centres of population but, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, to some of our great cities, including the great city of Lichfield?

Kill the poor

I don't think Cameron is quite advocating the Jello Biafra approach, but according to the Mail he's saying "If you're fat or poor, it's probably your own fault". Or the fault of people who decide that Pringles shouldn't have VAT charged on them. (Very disappointed by the response to that post; I thought it would spark quite a debate).

I'm doing a child poverty debate tomorrow, so will be cogitating and deliberating over exactly what Cameron had to say later tonight.

Safe european home

Worth remembering what was said in Parliament before Simon Mann's extradition to stand trial. From his MP, Julian Lewis: “ My constituent, Mr. Simon Mann, has completed his jail sentence in Zimbabwe but has been transferred by the Mugabe regime to a potentially terrible fate in Equatorial Guinea, despite the fact that his appeals processes have not been completed and despite the assurances given to the British ambassador to Zimbabwe that that would not happen. May we have a statement as soon as possible on the Floor of the House from the Foreign Secretary about what action is going to be taken? Quiet diplomacy has failed and we now have to save Mr. Mann, whatever he has or has not done, from torture and a horrible death in a terrible situation.”

I didn't catch the name of the guy being interviewed on Newsnight last night about Mark Thatcher's chances of being brought to book, but he certainly wasn't worried about the prospect of being sued, was he?

This charming man

I don't usually pay much attention to the obituaries, but this one, of Senator Jesse Helms, was fascinating. Plus more from the Guardian online. It's a shame he didn't live long enough to see Obama elected.

Monday 7 July 2008

Do nothing

As in, blog nothing. It's tempting. You can read other people's blogs instead...

Brian May - yes, that Brian May - has been badgering Hilary Benn. (Sorry, couldn't resist that.) There's an entertaining letter to the SoS on the second page, and someone suggesting that farmers are gassing badgers and then disguising them as roadkill.

Apparently he gets very irate on his blog whenever someone criticises Queen. So I'm definitely not going to. In fact I have Bohemian Rhapsody on my iPod. (OK, it's the Flaming Lips version, but still gets me off the hook, doesn't it?)

Sunday 6 July 2008

Cigarettes and alcohol

So, we have perfect weather today - sun in Wimbledon, rain in Silverstone. Fanatastic start by Hamilton. I will spend the duration of the British Grand Prix reading and replying to comments on the 'Smoke it' post. If you're not happy with the response, bear in my mind this blog's rules. If I've ignored you totally it will probably be because you've crossed the line between passionate advocacy of your cause, which is fine by me, and being gratuitously offensive, which isn't. And although, as you say, I'm an elected representative - I'm elected by voters in Bristol East and answerable to them, not the entire British electorate. Constituents get a different level of service, which they get by writing to me, emailing me or coming to see me at one of my surgeries - which is exactly as it should be. (To the one person who asked if he could come and see me - yes, if you live in Bristol East. I'm pretty sure all the Bristol MPs voted for the full ban, so if you live elsewhere in the city you can make the same points to whoever your elected representative is).

What I have done is to cut and paste all comments into a separate document - which runs to 102 pages. I'm going to read through, delete those which don't need (or possibly don't deserve) a response. Then I'll summarise the key themes, and respond to those en masse rather than referring to individual contributions. I will spend up to two hours on this, till the Grand Prix is over - and to prove I'm devoting this amount of time to it, I will insert a running commentary on Hamilton's progess. He's just overtaken Kovalainen.

First point - my comment about these responses being orchestrated by Forest, or other pro-smoking/ pro-choice groups. I was merely noting that these were people who already had a very fixed position on this issue, rather than representing a cross-section of views. Incidentally, it's interesting to note that recent press articles about the success of the smoking ban, citing the figures on heart attacks, public support, etc, have attracted only a handful of comments. Is this because they're moderated? Or is it more fun doling out abuse to an MP than to an anonymous journalist?

Second point - Godwin's law. The references to Nazis, etc are appalling. We're talking about a ban on smoking in pubs and clubs which means people have to stand on doorsteps - possibly in the cold and rain, admittedly - if they want to have a cigarette during an evening out. And - arguably - some pubs and clubs closing down. And that's comparable to millions of people being rounded up and sent to concentration camps and starved and gassed and shot? (See also the 'Hitler was a vegetarian argument').

Third point - the scientific evidence on passive smoking was debated and discussed at great length before Parliament voted on the ban. I considered it carefully, particularly the evidence on whether or not better ventilation or smoking areas would achieve the same objective. I was, and remain, convinced that passive smoking is a genuine risk to public health. I've blogged before about the perils of citing scientific evidence in politics, as each side can usually find facts and figures which support its own prejudices (e.g. on the badger cull, on GM crops, on nuclear energy, to name just a few issues). All we can do as politicians is to try to be as open-minded as possible, read the available information, try to determine which evidence is genuinely independent (as opposed to being funded by the tobacco industry or the pharmaceutical industry) and take a steer from people whose opinions we respect (e.g. in this case, Dr Ian Gibson and Doug Naysmith, two MPs with a huge amount of experience in the health field and both with scientific backgrounds). Which I have done. I don't think the quote from ASH negates anything I've said here or on previous posts. To summarise, I haven't changed my mind about (a) the dangers of smoking, (b) the health benefits of giving up smoking, and (c) the dangers of passive smoking. You will no doubt accuse me of ignoring the evidence; I haven't, I just don't think it's authoritative or compelling.

Fourth point - for me, passive smoking and its effect on bar/ restaurant staff was only one of the factors influencing my support for a ban on smoking in public places. This obviously isn't going to make me very popular with the Forest supporters, but I subscribe to the view that smoking is something that should be discouraged. Can any of you argue that smoking is a good thing, that it ought to be encouraged? Are you comfortable with the fact that British American Tobacco are now pushing their wares on children in the developing world, selling single cigarettes in a bid to get them hooked? You say it's a matter of choice. For you, yes. But my priority is young impressionable people who I don't want to see taking up smoking. They are more likely to do so if they see it as something which society tacitly encourages. And on the McDonald's point - I think it's a bad analogy; the Government is criticising junk food manufacturers and taking some steps against them as part of the obesity drive (e.g. the ban on pre-watershed junk food advertising, and vending machines in schools). The difference is that smoking is addictive. If someone is told their consumption of junk food is harming their health, they can give it up with a modicum of willpower. When my grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer she was completely incapable of quitting, after nearly 60 years of smoking. I remember her on her death bed, as she wasted away, asking 'how long does it take to die?' She died at 73; her three sisters died at 98, 100 and 101. My uncle's partner, who spent most of her working life on a production line in a factory where everyone smoked, died of lung cancer a couple of years ago, in her fifties, a few months after diagnosis. My dad - who smoked roll-ups and always insisted that the link between cancer and smoking, or cancer and diet was 'not proven' - died of cancer ten years ago this week. He was 56. So that's where I'm coming from.

Fifth point - I was involved in discussions on this issue prior to Labour's 2005 election manifesto; in fact I argued for a full ban at Labour's National Policy Forum a few years prior to this, but John Reid won the day on that occasion. I agree it would therefore have been wrong for Government whips to have pushed the full ban through Parliament, given that it wasn't a manifesto commitment, but they didn't; there was a free vote. Parliament votes all the time on issues which aren't in the governing party's election manifesto - e.g. the recent free votes in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. So we were pledged to introduce a partial ban, and had a free vote on whether to take it further.

Sixth point - John Reid frequently made the 'class' point, describing smoking as one of the few 'working class pleasures'. I didn't agree with him then, and I didn't agree with him now. I actually think it's just as patronising to say you're defending a working class pleasure as it is to say that the working class need to be saved from themselves. I don't draw a distinction between who smokes. I just think it's a bit disingenuous of Forest to push this line when their idea of effective political lobbying is to congregate in private members clubs in Belgravia and host champagne tea parties in the Commons.

Seventh point - public support for the ban. I was quoting figures widely reported in the press, and I don't think in any case you are saying you have majority support? I can only base it on published figures (and I've cited references for those) and what I've seen in my constituency. I've had virtually no complaints - two, I think - since the ban and one of those was from someone who said he wasn't allowed to smoke in his own home anymore. It doesn't come up on the doorsteps either (once, I think). As I've said, my office is based above a labour club, in which we hold our local party meetings. Customers there haven't complained to me. I have, I admit, had a couple of letters recently about the potential impact on corner shop profits if cigarettes have to be kept under the counter and packets of ten are banned; shop owners tell me that 25% of their profits are based on cigarette sales. I have some sympathy with them if they're facing a threat to their livelihood, but given that I think smoking is something which should be discouraged, I can't exactly condone the fact that their profits are made from selling cigarettes. We can't continue to promote cigarette sales just to keep them in business. (And just to reiterate, I'm not saying people should be prevented from smoking; I just don't think we should facilitate it. I'm not interested in forcing people to give up, but I want to make it easier for them, and I definitely do want to discourage young people from taking it up.) I think this also answers the point about why I don't think separate bars for smokers is a good idea.

Eighth point - I know quite a few smokers, and they all support the ban. Some didn't support it before it was introduced, but do now. Some have actually said they prefer being in non-smoky pubs, even though they are smokers themselves. I have not been approached by a single landlord in east Bristol about the impact on their business. I'm told dry-cleaners' business has also been affected, as people's clothes no longer stink of smoke after a night out. So should we reverse the ban just to keep them in business? It doesn't make sense. As for Ireland, my father lives in a very rural part of Carlow (not to be confused with the 'dad' I mentioned earlier, who was my stepfather from the age of two) and he says that it's actually a Government crackdown on drink-driving which has had the biggest impact on his local pubs, not the smoking ban which came in earlier. Old boys who would drive from their villages to the pub in the evenings now stay at home and drink alone. Which is sad, but does it mean Irish authorities should turn a blind eye to drink-driving?

Anyway, I've spent two hours on this, Hamilton has won (and I've missed a phenomenal race).

I don't expect to make anyone happier as a result of what I've said. As for what happens now - you are of course free to comment on this post, which you no doubt will. I am not going to close the blog down, but I am not going to prolong the debate by responding to comments as we will just end up going round in circles. I will start moderating comments if necessary. And I am going to delete any comments about smoking on non-smoking related posts. As I said, I'm not prepared to allow this blog to be hijacked by proponents of a single cause, especially not one with which I so vehemently disagree.