Tuesday 31 March 2009

Why we need men

It's usually not possible for me to blog about individual casework, because of confidentiality issues. But good news re Dieumerci an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who is one step closer tonight to being allowed to stay in the UK, having almost been removed back to DRC. My office - by which I primarily mean Lois, my caseworker - has been working with Dieumerci's supporters over recent months to try to get the removal decision overturned. (This is why MPs have staff. I know some people will violently object to 'their money' being spent on paying MPs' staff to help asylum seekers stay in the UK; I am also reassured by the knowledge that many decent people, including Dieumerci's supporters from the church, will be very pleased that we do).

Earlier tonight I was in the Chamber, PPS-ing in an adjournment debate on the DRC which had been requested by Eric Joyce, the chair of the All-Party Great Lakes Group. Sometimes it's a bit of chore for a PPS, sitting through rather lacklustre contributions from tired MPs at the end of the day, but Eric's speech was incredibly good, and very moving. He spoke about sexual violence against women in Eastern Congo, and about the case of a woman who would have died in childbirth, from a simple breech birth, had the visiting MPs not been able to lend her transport to get to the nearest hospital. I'll post the link to it when it appears in Hansard tomorrow. Definitely worth a read.

It's so good to hear a male MP raise such issues - too many men assume that issues such as sexual violence and maternal mortality are "women's issues" (as we saw in yesterday's Africa debate). They shouldn't be. Rape doesn't happen without a man's involvement; childbirth can't happen without someone fathering the child. It goes back to what I said on a recent post. We need to engage men in such debates if we're ever to find solutions.

For some reason Eric's speech, when he talked about the almost epidemic levels of sexual violence in DRC, brought to mind an incident from when I was about 16 or 17. I remember taking the family dog for a walk quite late at night, and seeing at the traffic lights a mini-bus full of drunken men who were obviously on their way back from a rugby match. They had a blow-up doll in the van and were punching her over and over again, in the face. It has always stayed in my mind because of the sheer viciousness and hatred on their faces, and the fact they were all cheering each other on. Obviously it was only an inflatable replica of a naked woman, but you would never for one moment get a group of women behaving in such a way. If they were in possession of a male inflatable, they'd be treating it as an object of ridicule (isn't that what men fear most - women laughing at them?). And yes, I accept women can be violent, but I don't think there's ever that pack mentality, that sheer hatred of someone for no other reason than their gender.

As politicians we can only ever go half-way towards tackling sexual violence if we only look at half the equation, i.e. at the women who are victims. We need to look more closely at men's involvement, at male attitudes and culture and the kind of group mentality which leads to gang rapes or the use of rape as a weapon of war. And to do that, dare I say it - we need men.

The power of Twitter

Somewhat surprised that I seem to have become every media outlet's "our man on the scene" regarding yesterday's fracas in the Commons. If only my phone been working I could have tweeted as events unfolded, although really all I heard was what is commonly described as a 'kerfuffle' out in the lobby behind the Speaker's chair. One of the doorkeepers came in and said something to the Deputy Speaker who seemed very concerned about it, and then one of the Ministers on bench duty came in and said that someone had let off some CS gas but it was 'under control'. We all thought it was a protester trying to break into the Chamber, who had managed to get within yards of doing so.

As it was, it turned out to be a drunken journo, and unfortunately it now transpires it's not even someone anyone has heard of. More than a few of us were hoping it would turn out to be one of the parliamentary sketchwriters.

Economy debate going on without me

Got a short breathing space before I head to the Fabians seminar on child poverty, at which I'm speaking. Will reply to some of the questions on the child poverty post later in the week, when I have more time.

At the moment a full day debate on the economy is taking place in the main chamber. I wanted to speak in it, but it's not so easy when you're one of the newer arrivals in the House. The Speaker tends to call people in order of seniority, so two and a half hours into the debate we've had contributions from John Reid, Ruth Kelly, Peter Lilley, John Maples, as well as Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Vince Cable. Everyone except the front-benchers are on a ten minute time limit. This is intended to ensure that everyone who wants to speak, can do so, but by the time you've allowed for interventions it often means those at the end of the running order have to squeeze all they want to say into five minute's worth of manic gabbling and hope it looks better in Hansard than it sounded at the time. And because I've got other commitments today, including this Fabians seminar, I would definitely be at the very bottom of the list.

Yesterday's Africa debate was an example of things not going quite according to plan. It started off with a 14 minute time limit on speeches, which would have been decided by the Speaker when looking at how many people had asked to speak. (If you write to the Speaker beforehand you're more likely to get called). After a couple of hours of debate this time limit was cut to 12 minutes, indicating that more speakers had turned up. It was then increased to 17 minutes, indicating that some people hadn't used their full allocation or had given up waiting and decided not to speak after all. This turned out to be a misjudgment. In the last hour or so the Minister started to worry that there were still four or five speakers left, which would totally squeeze the time left for him to respond to more than five hours of debate. Either the PPS or the whip then has to persuade the backbenchers to try to cut down their speeches, which doesn't go down too well when an MP has been sitting there for five hours waiting to be called.

If it was a more obscure issue I could probably get away with popping into the Chamber for the last couple of hours and still being called, but not today.

Hold the front page - local edition

Bristol Evening Post editor to marry a goat. You read it here first folks. Unless you are also a regular on the Bristol Blogger's site.

Saturday 28 March 2009

Hold the front page

Tomorrow's Observer has a front page story that Alastair Darling is going to focus help in his forthcoming Budget on the poorest families. Can't find it on the website yet but the story is, I assume, linked to a letter to the Observer from 110 Labour MPs, calling for any future fiscal stimulus to be targeted at those who need it most and are most likely to spend it. I happen to have a copy of the letter. (Because I wrote it).

"This month marks the 10th anniversary of the Labour Government’s pledge to eradicate child poverty. We have come a long way since then, lifting 600,000 children out of poverty, with another 500,000 to follow as a result of investment announced by the Chancellor, including an extra £1bn for tackling child poverty in Budget 2008: proof, if it was needed, of this Government’s determination to ‘Keep the Promise’ on child poverty.

As Labour MPs we believe that as the global economic downturn hits us here in the UK, it is time to reaffirm and strengthen our commitment to this country’s poorest children. We welcome the Government’s decision to bring a Child Poverty Bill before the House in this parliamentary session, which will enshrine the child poverty targets in law.

There will be many demands made of the Chancellor over the coming weeks as he counts down towards his Budget on April 22nd. We believe that targeting resources towards the poorest children and their families does not just make moral sense; it makes economic sense too.

A targeted fiscal stimulus, aimed at those who need the money most and are most likely to spend it, is the best way to help the UK out of recession. An extra pound in the pocket of a family living in poverty will do more to increase demand, to keep people in jobs, and to keep our businesses in business, than its equivalent in tax cuts for an affluent household.

We do not need to choose between keeping the economy afloat and helping families keep their heads above water. The most effective economic recovery package – giving the most to those who need it most - can do both.

We – along with the 10,000 people who attended the ‘Keep the Promise’ rally in Trafalgar Square in October, and many more of our constituents too - urge the Chancellor to keep child poverty in mind as he prepares his Budget, and to ‘Keep the Promise’ to children in the UK."

Probably not a great weekend for the mobile to pack up - and whoever it is who has left messages, I can't access them but perhaps a text might work? But anyway, looks like job done.

Cows - a follow up

I was obviously feeling far too mellow when I wrote my first piece. Now I've done whatever the opposite is of 'mellowed' and I'm more than a little cross, not least because I've since been to the newsagents and seen that this non-story graces the entire front page of today's BEP. So here's my letter to the editor. Let's see if it makes Monday's edition.

"I was very disappointed to see the front page of Saturday's 'Evening Post' ('Pull the Udder One'). The link between the livestock industry and climate change is a serious issue, accepted by many people, from the UN and Al Gore down. I raised this in Parliament last week because I believe the facts demand action, whether that be the farming industry exploring ways in which emissions can be reduced or individuals who are concerned about the environment choosing to limit their meat consumption, in the same way that others are choosing to use their cars less or take fewer flights.

It is simply irresponsible journalism, however, to conflate this issue with the story about Bristol City Council's proposal to keep a herd of cows on Stoke Park. As I made clear in my contribution to that piece, the appearance of another 100 or so cows in the Bristol area is neither here nor there when it comes to the question of global warming. The fact that only one vegan (not 'vegans' as your strapline suggested) was found who would condemn the proposal on those grounds speaks for itself.

Whether keeping a herd of cows is a sensible project for the Council to embark upon is another matter. I, for one, would suggest their energies might be better expended in sorting out the buses and fly-tipping, and I think most council tax payers would agree. When can we expect to see serious proposals put forward by the Council for a Quality Bus Contract so that we can bring in real competition to First Bus, and an Integrated Transport Authority for the Bristol area? The Government has done its bit, giving local authorities new powers under the Local Transport Act. Now it's time for the Council to do the job that council tax payers are actually paying it to do.

Kerry McCarthy MP."

Less is more

Do you ever walk round a supermarket and just feel totally overwhelmed by it all? By the choice, by the variety, by the tiny little differences in price or packaging or ingredients between each brand? Just switched on the TV and there's an advert for some kind of fancy Pringles deluxe brand, in fancy little bags and in fancy little flavours ... Pringles are Pringles, they should be in tubes so deep you get your hand stuck in them. We don't need fancy Pringles. (Although we do need a vegan version of the sour cream and onion ones).

Obviously there's a commercial motive behind this. Once you've maximised your 'bogstandard' Pringles customer base and established the brand, you start looking at ways of selling the same kind of thing for far more money. But it's all... just a bit much, isn't it? I find myself longing for the simple life.

Stoke Park - the new Heathrow?

The Bristol Evening Post has picked up on the livestock issue with some enthusiasm, headlining their latest piece 'Cows as damaging as airports'. I should make clear that wasn't a quote from me, and that I don't think a herd of 100 cows or so matters a jot in the big scheme of things. As for whether Bristol City Council should really be moving into the beef-farming business, that's another matter entirely. How about sorting out the buses first?

Friday 27 March 2009

A new blogger in town

Apologies to Gordon Prentice, but if there has to be one new Lib Dem MP in Parliament after the next election (and there doesn't), please let it be this guy. I particularly like 'Blogging will be light' and 'Is Sadiq Khan MP a terrorist?' And this one 'Why not to become a journalist?' Why not, indeed.

Thanks to Blackburn Labour for alerting me to this work of genius.

Why peel your own grapes?

People are often a little sceptical when I talk about the future being in hi-tech, hi-skilled jobs and how the UK and Bristol are well-placed to take advantage of this. Well here's some proof. We should be really proud of such achievements.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Livestock's long shadow - the debate

Here's the early Hansard record of my Westminster Hall debate today on "The Livestock Industry's Impact on Climate Change" (which despite what all my colleagues have been saying to me today is not just about flatulent cows!) Always a bit weird reading things in Hansard as it doesn't convey the spirit in which certain things were said. The Minister requoted the line that becoming vegetarian does more to combat climate change than switching to a hybrid car, and then said she had no intention of doing either (although she did tell me afterwards that her ministerial car is a Honda hybrid). I made what at the time seemed like a humorous intervention, saying I wanted it put on the record that I drove a Smart car. In cold print that just looks completely off topic! Or a bit smug. Actually I said Smart car roadster - the roadster bit is very important, it's not one of those funny little things. Wonder if it's too late to amend Hansard? Or maybe I could bring it up on a point of order after business questions tomorrow? We have to set the record straight!

Bit disappointed with the Minister's response. In fact, I got the impression that the objective was to say as little as possible... or as little on the actual topic as possible. For example, this: "Traditionally, here in the UK meat is an important source of protein, iron, calcium, zinc and other vitamins and minerals. I have a lot of sympathy with those who say that there is no such thing as bad food, that it is the diet that we get wrong and that we need a balanced diet and must exercise greater portion control. Delia Smith was arguing for that just the other day and I think that she is right." Fine, yes, it's one viewpoint, but nothing to do with the topic we were debating. (Her boss, Hilary Benn, is of course a vegetarian).

The main problem was that the Minister is from Defra, and so was only briefed to talk about UK agriculture and to stick up for British farming, whereas as I made clear in my opening speech, it's a global issue, and it requires global action. Reducing the environmental footprint of UK agriculture is just tinkering at the margins. So we really need to take the debate to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Of course what I should have done was raise all this during the passage of the Climate Change Bill, but I was preoccupied with other things at the time and was kind of hoping someone else would do so. Someone who's not a vegan.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Another angle on our current debate

Following on from my 'Are rich people more intelligent?' and 'And it's not just about qualifications' posts, here's an interesting piece from today's Guardian about black pupils at Oxbridge. The background of the two lads profiled for the piece seems to bear out what I, and some others, have already said. (A black girl from my sixth form college went to Oxford - she ended up presenting Blue Peter. Or I assume she went to my sixth form; her sister certainly did. Vicky Lickorish was her name.)

I was told an interesting statistic the other week. One third of all black boys who go to university go to one university, London Metropolitan in North London. Shocking really. Wonder why that is?

I get a feeling of foreboding as I post this... How many comments am I going to have to delete?

Saturday 21 March 2009

Just to put the record straight...

Sadie is on good form here, with her account of this week's PMQs as narrated by Fraser Nelson. And Sadie, I do agree with you and Olly's Onions about Henry Porter, I really do. Despite the last post.

Chalk it up

For once I find myself agreeing with Henry Porter on this case of the UWE student who has been arrested for chalking civil liberties messages somewhere on the pavement in Broadmead. (For non-Bristolians, that's Bristol West constituency, in the city centre). Although I also agree with Dr Jazz in the comments section, who neatly punctures Mr Porter's self-importance.

The Bristol Evening Post carries a more comprehensive account, which reveals that it was the second time the student had been caught in the act. The first time he'd been let off with a caution. I can't see how a criminal damage charge can stick though. What's been damaged? Who has been harmed?

The other interesting aspect to this story is that he says he was approached by four policeman. Last week the media was debating whether police officers ought to walk the beat alone. rather than in pairs. (On the same day I walked into work at Westminster along the South Bank, and saw four police officers standing together chatting, enjoying the sunshine... nice work if you can get it.) I can understand why police officers would want to patrol in pairs, at least in certain parts of town. But four officers to arrest a lad scribbling on the pavement with a piece of chalk? All it needed was a bucket of water.

Friday 20 March 2009

I know my place...

Douglas Alexander has had three parliamentary aides since he became a Minister. Bob Blizzard, Lawrie Quinn and me. Don't know why I'm suddenly reminded of that...

And it's not just about qualifications...

Seeing as the post on getting more young people into university has generated so much debate, here's another idea I've been germinating for some time.

When I was first elected I hadn't reckoned on becoming an employer too, of a small team of staff and the occasional slave labour (aka interns). I started off with very good intentions. I wanted to take on bright kids from poorer backgrounds who had made it to uni against the odds; who hadn't been to private school or Oxbridge or had family connections in the media or politics; who didn't have anyone to pull strings for them. People who just needed someone to give them a break.

But actually, it didn't turn out to be that easy. If such people were out there, I found it hard to find them. I ended up taking on a succession of interns who had been to public school, or were from Surrey, or were called Toby, or played classical instruments... (revealing my prejudices here, I know). Who were, by and large, very good.

So where were the kind of kids I was looking for? Partly it goes back to the issue we were discussing before; such kids are far less likely to go to university, and so there simply aren't as many of them around. And even if they do pretty well academically, once they get out into the 'real world' their horizons are limited by a whole range of factors: who they know; what their family expects; what they see as achievable ambitions. And sometimes by a desire not to become the type of person they met at uni (ref. 'Common People' and 'Misshapes' and other works of genius by Jarvis Cocker).

So how do we get round this? One of the obstacles in their way is that these days it's almost not enough to have a degree. Most of the applicants who send CVs my way now have Masters degrees. They've done gap years, travelling the world and working in orphanages in Africa and on environmental projects in Central America. They've had 'interesting' summer jobs, in the media or in politics or at NGOs. (A definite plus sign in my book is having worked at a restaurant called something like 'the Golden Egg' or in the kitchen at Littlewoods or in a packing-factory, all of which I did as a teenager. And by the way, working as an unpaid researcher for George Osborne or campaigning for the Tory candidate in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election... call me fussy, but that's a definite no. True stories, those.)

And then of course, there's the issue of money. I know most students leave university with debts these days, but it's amazing how many can scrape together the funds to work as unpaid interns for 6 months, adding valuable experience to their CV. Of course it helps if they can still live at home, and have parents who are willing to support them. But what about those who can't do this? The Government - by which I mean David Lammy at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and Liam Byrne at the Cabinet Office with his Social Mobility White Paper, and Alan Milburn who has been charged with looking at fair access to the professions - are looking at ways to support young people break through this glass ceiling. And it's not enough simply to make these opportunities available - we need actively to seek out young people who might benefit, but who would never think of applying.

I think we in Parliament should set an example, with our own internship scheme and bursaries. How about adding 10p onto the price of every pint of beer or glass of wine sold in the Strangers and all the other Palace of Westminster bars, to pay for it?

Assisted dying

I wrote a letter to a constituent yesterday who was worried that the Government was contemplating legalising assisted suicide. I reassured her that there was no legislation currently in front of parliament ... and then up pops Patricia Hewitt today with her amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is going to be debated on Monday.

I got an email from Patricia asking if I'd add my name in support of the amendment, but only saw it late in the afternoon after the House had risen, so was too late to do so. I would have. I'm in favour not just of ensuring immunity from prosecution for those who travel overseas with the terminally ill to these clinics, but of allowing euthanasia or 'assisted dying' here too. Obviously, as I also reassured my constituent in my letter, we could not go down this path without public debate and very stringent safeguards to prevent abuse, but in principle I'm in favour. The Prime Minister isn't, and I'm not entirely sure why. (And here's an earlier post on this).

Are rich people more intelligent?

Getting into a mini-debate with people (Tories, Chris Hutt) on Twitter about widening access to uni. If 50% or more of kids from private schools have always gone to uni, why shouldn't 50% of all kids aspire to do so? Some people (OK, Chris Hutt) are arguing that doesn't compute, that rich kids will be on average smarter than poorer kids, because intelligence is hereditary and people who are intelligent are more likely to be rich. By rich I think they mean middle-class, whereas I mean 'able to pay private school fees' - and yes, I know some people on fairly modest incomes go to great lengths to scrape together the money to pay school fees. Still, on balance, the products of our private school system are from wealthier backgrounds than those from what less cautious souls than I might term a 'bog-standard comprehensive'.

But are they smarter? I don't think so. For a start, intelligent parents are more likely to be left-leaning and thus ideologically opposed to private schooling. (This is an incontrovertible fact, based on many years' personal observation on my part). And many highly intelligent people don't go into highly-paid jobs either, choosing to work in the public sector, or the third sector.

To cut to my question though, as it's way past bedtime... How do you judge who is more deserving of a place at a top uni, let's say Oxford or Cambridge: the kid from a rough background at a poorly performing school who gets 3Bs - or the kid from a solidly upper-middle class family who goes to one of our top public schools and comes away with 3As? OK, the rich kid has technically achieved more and is better educated (in a narrow sense), but who has the greatest natural ability, and the most potential? And who needs that Oxbridge place the most?

Today and tomorrow and the next day

Got back to Bristol early today, to join Consumer Focus at Cafe Maitreya for the local launch of their 'Streetwise' report, which was based on case studies carried out in Easton, as well as wider polling. They chose Easton for the study because it represents a microcosm of a typical city, with so much diversity in such a small area. The report looks at issues like energy prices, mobile phones, all those consumer issues which affect people on low incomes. Spent an interesting couple of hours with Ed Mayo and Lord Whitty from Consumer Focus, talking about fuel poverty, social tariffs being offered by energy suppliers, 'green' electricity companies and various related issues. So much could be done to raise people's living standards if we could just sort out some of the bureaucracy and muddle involved in accessing basic services. Was told a few horror stories, for example the woman who moved into a flat where the previous tenant hadn't paid his gas bill. The energy company accepted she hadn't run up the debt but said that 'someone had to pay it'. And then cut her off, with a £500+ reconnection fee when she couldn't/ wouldn't do so! As I said to Ed Mayo, they might just as reasonably have gone out and mugged someone in the street for the money, on the same grounds: "well, someone has to pay it"!

Left Cafe Maitreya (the UK's no. 1 vegetarian restaurant, as voted by Guardian readers) with just enough time to pop into the Sweetmart (which is not a sweetshop) for essential supplies. Ended up being given a tour of the shop's extension and upstairs by the owner. Really excited about his plans, but can't remember which bits are public knowledge and which are under wraps at the moment, so will wait for the big launch in a few months.

Tomorrow I'm visiting Headway, the brain injury association, at Frenchay hospital. (This has been on the cards for months, and rescheduled a couple of times, but seems very timely now). I'm also meeting with the new Chief Executive of Bristol Airport, and on Saturday I'm taking part in a panel session with young people about terrorism and violent extremism in the rather unlikely setting of Bristol zoo. Also doing quite a bit of campaigning - out in St George, and possibly Frome Vale - and attending my GC. Then on Sunday it's Mother's Day - and watching Slumdog Millionaire on DVD with the lads and a curry!

Thursday 19 March 2009

A portrait of poverty

OK, I'm sort of watching Question Time although it's not particularly inspiring tonight, and tweeting a bit through it, so not really able to do a proper post but thought I should mention Amelia Gentleman's excellent piece in the Guardian yesterday, on child poverty, which focused on one household in Hartcliffe, south Bristol. I've been in touch with Amelia over the past month or two, and know she has been doing a huge amount of background work on this issue, for example, meeting with parents at the Single Parent Action Network in Easton. A good piece of well-researched journalism, which nails the myth that poverty is self-inflicted (e.g. those feckless single mothers spending it all on drink or fags or pizza) or is just about a kid not being able to afford designer trainers or the latest Nintendo. The most telling point in the article though is the mother's admission she is trying to pay off around £600 in bank charges and penalties; it's those things which really hit a family's finances for six.

Will be doing lots more on child poverty over the next few months, in the run-up to the Budget and the launch of the Child Poverty Bill. Watch this space.

Fairtrade or local, environmentally-friendly or cruelty-free?

Ooffoo (which I only discovered recently - hat-tip to Paul Smith) has a poll on its website: if you had to choose, is it better to buy local or fairtrade? On the one hand, you have the environmental consideration, of cutting out all those foodmiles, but on the other, you're making a real contribution to supporting the livelihoods of people in developing countries, who absolutely depend on you buying fairtrade produce for them to be able to feed their families, send their kids to school, etc, etc.

Although, thinking about it - is that a dilemma you would often face? The most common fairtrade goods include coffee, cocoa, chocolate, tea and bananas, and also things like rice, quinoa and sesame seeds too. None of which you can easily buy in local farmers markets. So you can buy your Nicaraguan fairtrade coffee and your locally grown vegetables with a clear conscience.

There are some things however where there is a genuine choice: jam, honey, wine (if you're not too fussy), flowers and icecream (Ben and Jerry's 'Chunky Monkey', for connoisseurs.) Flowers are particularly complicated. Even the environmental footprint is difficult to calculate - foodmiles are obviously higher if flowers are imported from Kenya rather than from Holland, but energy useage is much higher in the hothouses in Holland. On the other hand, flower-growing is a considerable drain on scarce water supplies in Kenya.... But then again, if they're fairtrade flowers, it might be the one way Kenyans can earn enough to survive. Decisions, decisions.

And the coffee thing can still be complicated. I was in the local health-food/ deli type shop the other day, looking to buy a pack of coffee. You could buy fairtrade, or organic, or decaf, or a combination of two out of three - fairtrade decaf, or decaf organic, or fairtrade organic - but not all three. In a fit of uselessness I ended up buying the cocoa instead.

P.S. Yes I know this is one of those middle-class/ middle-income dilemmas which is very remote from the lives of people who can barely make their weekly income stretch to a basket of goods from Aldi or Lidl's. On which point, see my next post...

The Golden Age of liberty is now


Wednesday 18 March 2009

(Some of) what I've been up to this week

Some days as an MP you end up doing quite a lot of high-visibility stuff in the Chamber that people get to hear about, either because they watch the Parliament channel or have signed up for theyworkforyou alerts or catch sight of you on the news. Monday was such a day - I managed to get called twice at DWP questions despite not being on the order paper. My first question was prompted by an email I'd had from a constituent, protesting at the Government's announcement of a special package to help senior executives who have lost their jobs get back into work. And then I managed to get called during topical Qs too, and took the opportunity to flag up the 10 year anniversary of Labour's pledge to abolish child poverty.

Then we had a statement from Alistair on the G20 finance ministers meeting, and I asked about city regulation. When I was on the Treasury Select Committee I'd asked on several occasions (in committee and on external visits) about the phenomenal growth in derivatives trading and the hedge funds, and whether the Bank of England and FSA and Treasury felt they could properly assess the level of institutional and systemic risk. From what I can recall, the responses often involved them explaining derivatives or hedge funds to me in slow and careful language, as if my concern was only prompted by the fact that I didn't really understand what these scary things were. I did. I do.

Anyway, they insisted they were on top of things, and now it seems that they weren't. (Ditto when Andy Love MP used to ask them about the sub-prime mortgage market. Andy spent most of the Treasury Select Committee's trip to Washington/ New York in 2006 asking economists and politicians and regulators about the sub-prime mortgage market: well ahead of the curve on that one). I digress, as ever: my question to Alistair was how, when financial institutions employ people with Ph.D. in physics and mathematics to conjure up new products and make hugely complicated calculations about market risk, could the FSA ever hope to keep up? Looking forward to the debates on Adair Turner's report on an end to 'light touch' regulation, but that's another topic for another day.

Later on in the day on Monday I spent three hours - interrupted by a meeting with Ed Balls and the rest of the DCSF ministerial team to talk about schools and children's issues in Bristol - in the Chamber for the Youth Parliament motion. When faced with Tory MPs who are doing their best to talk the issue out, and talking complete nonsense in the process, it's a difficult choice: do you sit still, say nothing and hope they will eventually shut up? Or do you rise to the bait and intervene on them to point out just how stupid their arguments are? I went for the middle option - didn't speak in the debate but couldn't resist a few interventions, e.g asking the leader of the old fogey tendency, Christopher Chope MP, how many young people he'd consulted (five, two of whom were gap year students in his office, two of whom were his daughters - and his local youth MP, who didn't agree with him). There was also a completely fatuous thread being pursued at one point by Philip Davies MP, who was trying to argue that allowing UKYP to use the chamber wouldn't play any part in encouraging more young people to become involved in politics. Which I can't be bothered to explain here. Just take it from me, he was wrong. And if you want some hard proof of just how far Cameron has got to go in dragging his backbenchers into the 21st century, have a read of the full debate in Hansard. (And bear in mind, they're trying to talk it out so when they say the Government doesn't want to debate it, they mean the Government doesn't want to spend so long debating it that a decision never gets made).

Anyway, as I was saying, some days you spend a lot of time in the Chamber. Today was the complete opposite. No point going in for Scotland questions (although I had submitted a question about seals being killed by Scottish trawlermen but it didn't get drawn). Then there was statement on the Staffs hospital which, though important, is obviously more a matter for the local MPs. And then there was an opposition day debate on the economy, which would have been worth being in the Chamber for, but we've got another full day debate on the economy on the 31st which I plan to speak in... So, by the end of the day had only spent half an hour in the Chamber, for PMQs.

I did, however, have a really interesting and productive day. For example, I met with the regional head of Barnardo's to talk about the children of prisoners, and to discuss how to take some of these issues forward. We're in the position now that we were with young carers ten years ago; it's simply not on the radar. But Ministers are starting to take an interest, and I'm confident we can really push the agenda over the coming months. Barnardo's in the South West is taking a lead on it, with two pilots - one in Bristol, one in a rural area - which could be really groundbreaking. So, left that meeting feeling very postive and energised, and then had a meeting of the All-Party Group on Poverty, with Sir Richard Tilt of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which was mostly about reform of the social fund. John Battle and Terry Rooney were amongst the other MPs there - both incredibly knowledgeable about welfare issues, and how different elements of the system fits together. Or doesn't fit, which is often the problem. The task now will be to put this information to some use.

Last port of call of the day was the Child Poverty Action Group's event to mark the 10th anniversary of the Government's pledge to abolish child poverty. Good opportunity to catch up with Kate Green from CPAG and some of the other child poverty campaigners. Ed Balls was the guest speaker, and it overran a bit, so we ended up having to race over to the Commons to catch the 7pm vote. Made it with seconds to spare. Very impressed by Ed's ability to leap up three stairs at a time, and even more impressed by his insistence on waiting for me to catch up. Don't know quite what the people in the public gallery would have thought when they saw me sprinting into the chamber as the doors were about to close, clutching my bouquet of flowers. (Won an award, CPAG MP of the Year...)

So, as I started off by saying - some days it's public, some days it's more behind the scenes stuff. But both are equally important. You have to know what you're talking about before you try to stand up and talk about it. Although I'm not entirely sure Messrs Chope and Davies have learnt that lesson yet.

Sunday 15 March 2009

It just goes to show you can't be too careful

Strange goings on courtesy of David Mitchell of Mitchell and Webb fame, over here. It might just catch on.

Saturday 14 March 2009

Someone needs to explain what went wrong and why

Seeing as I have been taken to task on here for supposedly not taking rape seriously enough (which was wrong, but...), let's talk about the cab driver just convicted of a series of assaults and almost certainly responsible for many more (100 say the serious papers, as many as 500 say the tabloids). In my opinion there should be as much of a public outcry over this as there was over the Baby P case. His victims have been let done by the authorities - in this case, the police - clearly not doing their job properly. The guy had a very distinctive modus operandi, which should have made it easy to link the cases and, indeed, to track him down. I suspect if he'd concentrated on picking up women from railway stations on their way home from work, the police would have been onto it a lot quicker, but when it's drunken women making their way home from a night out, that old 'contributory negligence' rears its ugly head again.

And on this, I stand by the point I was making in my 'what is a women's issue?' post, about how we can't just deal with 'women's issues' within a women-only silo. The debate about rape should be taken to the men, discussed amongst young lads at school (after all, the majority of rapes are not 'stranger rapes' by deranged serial rapists), along with other issues such as domestic violence, unplanned pregnancies, and generally, treating women with respect. This message needs to be reinforced by male role models. And taken up by male politicians. Men are, it's a fact, more likely to listen when it's men doing the talking. I'd like to see Gordon intervening on this, not just leaving it to Jacqui and Harriet and Vera. And how about Cameron asking him about it at PMQs this week?

Daily Mail to blame for rise in unplanned pregnancies

Had a letter from a constituent recently, attributing the rise in teenage pregnancies to young women's desire to get a council house and lots of benefits. I pointed out to her that the stats actually related to a rise in teenage conception rates and in fact fewer babies are being born to teenage mothers, because more of them are choosing to have terminations. Separate debate to be had of course as to why teenage conception rates are going up, and here I reiterate a point I touched on in my 'women's issues' post - it takes two to make a baby, and we'd do well to pay a bit more attention to the boys, who play a not insignificant part in the process.

In yesterday's G2 Zoe Williams wrote of her shock at discovering she was 20 weeks pregnant. She'd assumed she was having an early menopause ("I'm 35, it does happen... I read it in the Daily Mail"). I also have a friend who discovered she was pregnant for the first time at the age of 38, and no she didn't do it accidentally on purpose. ("I believed the Daily Mail! I thought I was over the hill!") Thankfully her boyfriend was far less freaked out by it than she was, and it all worked out happily ever after.

Can I suggest that just as teenage magazines warn their readers that yes, you can get pregnant the first time you have sex, the Daily Mail has a duty to warn its readers that women over the age of 35 can and do have babies? Quite often, in fact. Even the 'career women' who 'forgot to have them' earlier?

Friday 13 March 2009

A closer look at the numbers

What's got into the Bristol Evening Post? A few days ago it ran an astonishingly uncritical piece on Cllr Shirley 'takes the biscuit' Marshall, and now it's regurgitating Conservative Party press releases.

Note the headline - "Mixed picture of youngsters heading to uni" and its opening line - "fewer young people from the affluent Bristol West constituency went to university last year than a decade before". This hardly earth-shattering statistic - down from 610 to 590 - was unearthed by a Parliamentary Question from Conservative frontbencher David Willetts (no doubt tabled with more than a little bit of assistance from his former researcher, a certain Bristol PPC).

Then look at the rest of the figures:

Bristol East 275 (185)
Bristol North West 310 (265)
Bristol South 190 (145)
Kingswood 385 (325)
Northavon 560 (495)
Bath 495 (360)
Wansdyke 500 (390)
Weston-super-Mare 425 (345)
Woodspring 565 (535).

Notice anything? Yup, in every single other constituency in the Bristol area the number of pupils going to university has gone up. Quite significantly in some cases. I hesitate to try calculating percentages at this time of night but I can say with some confidence that a drop from 610 to 590 in Bristol West (which could well be explained by demographic changes) is far less statistically significant than a rise from 185 to 275 in Bristol East. So BEP, why allow yourself to be spun the Tory line?

Moaning about buses again

After my last meeting with the MD I wrote to him to follow up on an issue Dawn Primarolo and I had discussed with him (and got, we thought, a reasonably encouraging response), about introduced a reduced fare pilot scheme on one or two key routes, to see if it would encourage more people to use the buses. Had a frankly useless response today, which was basically along the lines 'you might think fares have gone up but actually they haven't in absolutely every case and not by as much as you think'. And no mention of the pilot schemes.

You may recall that two of First's favourite excuses for fare increases and lack of reliability were (a) the price of fuel and (b) difficulty in recruiting drivers. We all know what's happened to fuel prices lately, and I'm reliably informed that as unemployment bites, they're now inundated with applications from would-be drivers.

What do we want? A Quality Contract! When do we want it? Now!

Looking for 'fun and action', that's me

Friday night and all I have the energy to do is lift stuff from other people's blogs. Hopi Sen has alerted me to the Typealyzer where you can assess your blogging personality just by pasting your blog url into it and letting it do its thang. Obviously a highly scientific process, as evidenced by the fact that Guido and I turn out to be kindred spirits...

Update on Skip2bFit 2009

TC came top again with 300; apparently when he's not rounding up criminals, he boxes, and boxers skip. Followed by Julia Goldsworthy from the Lib Dems and then Alison Seabeck for Labour. Can't remember how many they got - think Alison said 170? Better start practising now for 2010...

Gordon's list - update

Iain Dale has confessed to what surely must be the worst score anyone has racked up on Gordon's DVD list. He owns Schindler's List and has seen ET. And that's it. He's never even seen the Wizard of Oz! How is that possible?

Bad timing

Forgot that posting on LabourList meant I had to look at comments coming in on there... My first piece was about the inclusion of children in what Derek (or someone) dubbed 'exploitation TV'. Cue daft comments from people saying 'if you don't want your kids to watch it Kerry, switch it off' and talking about parental controls of children's viewing habits. It was nothing to do with children watching anything! The charitable explanation is that they didn't read the article

More worryingly though, someone felt that the piece might be having a bit of a sideways swipe at David Cameron, who has in the past been accused of exposing his children to the public gaze for political gain. It was posted around the time of PMQs on the day Ivan Cameron died. Can I just make clear - the piece was written while waiting for a late vote in my Westminster office and then emailed through to LabourList the night before it appeared, or possibly even on the Monday night, I can't remember. I agree that to have sat down and penned such a piece the day of Ivan's death would have been in appalling bad taste (even though it was nothing to do with the Camerons). But that's not what happened.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

That's right, blame the mother

Did her mother lock her in the cellar for 24 years, rape and abuse her repeatedly, impregnate her repeatedly, leave her with terrible internal injuries and permanent psychological damage? Not to mention the harm done to the children who were born down there as a result of incestuous rape. No, her mother was NOT 'the cause of her 24 year ordeal'.

And while we're on the subject - the article is fairly balanced, the headline is not.

Wasted youth

We're having one of those evenings which demonstrates just how ridiculous Parliament can sometimes be. On the Order of Business for today is a motion that the Youth Parliament should be allowed to use the Commons chamber for a debate during recess; they've already been allowed to use the Lords. It has to be called before 7pm, or the motion falls.

The Tory party don't support this - 'tradition, old chap', or something like that - but they don't want to be seen to be voting against it. So, they're calling votes on everything else, just so that we don't get to it before 7pm. The last vote, called by the Tories, saw Labour and Lib Dems in the same division lobby and the Tories just sitting in the Chamber, doing nothing. Only 4 people were down as voting against, which would be the Tory tellers. In other words, they called a vote just to waste time. And now they've just called another one.

While I'm on the subject of Tories and 'yoof', I was at an Action for Children reception yesterday. The host, the Tory spokesman for children's issues, welcomed the young people to the event and warned them 'don't trash the place'! They didn't look too impressed.

Got to go and vote now. Again.

Update: that vote was carried by 307 to 6. It was about control of ozone-depleting products. Then we had another vote on sitting in private - I think that's means that someone - one of the crustier Tories no doubt - called 'I spy strangers' - and then we had to vote on whether to kick everyone out of the public gallery. By the time we'd done that it was gone 7pm.

There must be another way to have a vote on the youth parliament issue. No doubt it will come up in Business questions tomorrow.

The queen of karaoke

Harriet Harman just said to me at the vote now, "I hear you're into karaoke"! Can I just make absolutely clear that this is not true. Not at all. Every now and again the 5/5/5/ intake get together for a social, which on occasion includes karaoke - and I'm the one sat in the corner, adamantly refusing to join in. Not drinking may have something to do with it.

Anyway, Harriet says it was definitely me her source was talking about, but maybe it wasn't karaoke after all... the mind boggles. (Actually I think Tom Harris and some of the 2001 intake quite enjoy the odd karaoke session too. But not me.)

PMQs today was low-key, as expected. David Cameron, for the first time, impressed me as a human being; he came across as very genuine, and not at all pre-rehearsed talking about Ivan. Questions were on Northern Ireland, on which there is broad consensus, and then onto the rather more contentious issue of rendition. Nick Clegg went on the French decision re NATO; not sure that would have any resonance with the great British public, more a reflection of his own personal interests. I was told an anecdote by a Tory MP recently: Nick Clegg went in to see his boss at the European Commission, Sir Leon Brittan, to announce that he'd been selected for a parliamentary seat and would therefore have to leave work. 'Congratulations' boomed Brittan, 'You'll be an asset to the party'. At which point Nick had to explain that he was actually going to be standing as a Liberal Democrat.

A bit of light relief from all the statesmanship came when the Lib Dem MP for Chesterfield namechecked the neighbouring seat, Bolsover, in a question about concessionary bus fares, and then the Speaker called Dennis Skinner to put the boot in. But the best moment came just before PMQs when David Taylor asked the Welsh Secretary about the Barnett formula. Paul Murphy replied dryly that 'the Barnett formula has been in place for the past thirty years and you've been asking questions about it for the past ten', much to the amusement of Joel Barnett (now Lord Barnett) who was sitting up in the public gallery. I'm sure he had no idea when he introduced the formula as a fairly junior Treasury minister that he'd still be getting namechecks thirty years later.

Anyway - busy day from now onwards so no more blogging.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Have you seen Gordon's list?

On a lighter note, Tom Harris has tagged me on this - the list of DVDs which Barack Obama gave Gordon Brown, which incidentally I think was a mighty fine present, especially seeing as Gordon is a film buff. (Although I was slightly put out to learn, many years ago, that Gordon walked out of Pulp Fiction. I like to think it was because he was with someone who was easily offended, rather than taking offence himself).

These are the films: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, Raging Bull, Singin’ in the Rain, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List, Vertigo, The Wizard of Oz, City Lights, The Searchers, Star Wars: Episode IV, Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunset Boulevard, The Graduate,The General, On the Waterfront, It’s a Wonderful Life, Chinatown, Some Like it Hot, The Grapes of Wrath, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and To Kill a Mockingbird.

You get two points for owning them, one point for seeing them and nul points if you've done neither. Tom got 22. I won't beat that.

I own - On the Waterfront.

I've seen - Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, Raging Bull, Singin’ in the Rain, Schindler’s List, Vertigo, The Wizard of Oz, Psycho, The Graduate, It’s a Wonderful Life, Chinatown, Some Like it Hot, and To Kill a Mockingbird. [And I'm not 100% sure about Chinatown actually].

So, a measly 16 points out a possible 50. I tag - Paul Smith, the Bristol Blogger, Northern Lights, Bevanite and someone called Dave (there seems to be rather a lot of you).

P.S. Tom - foie gras adverts on the website?

The homecoming parade

My heart sinks at the thought of the comments that will inevitably come in as a result of this post, but I feel that I should comment, albeit only briefly, on the story that has broken tonight about the trouble in Luton.

To put this into context - I was born in Luton. I only moved out a few weeks before my 40th birthday. I know the key figures within the Muslim community pretty well, through my past involvement in local politics, and still bump into some of them occasionally. Which means I can confidently say this: they would be appalled by the protests that took place today.

Luton prides itself on being a place which has coped admirably with successive waves of immigration over the past century, from the Scots and Irish (including my father's family), who came to work in the car industry, to the African-Caribbeans in the 1950s and 60s, the Asians in the 1970s, followed by Bosnians, Kosovans, Iraqis, Somalis, Congolese and various other refugees in more recent years. I'm not saying there have never been tensions, but the town has managed them. We had a fairly active National Front in the 1970s, and lots of skinheads, but eventually they were driven out of town or underground. (Some of the older Asians have some great stories about how they achieved this). There's been some BNP activity more recently, but not on the scale seen in many other towns. In fact the nearest elected BNP-er was a councillor in Broxbourne, a place not noted for its ethnic diversity.

What the town has seen in recent years, certainly since September 11th but possibly before, is a very small but very vocal group of extremists within the Muslim community, members of Al-Muhajiroun and then, after it was disbanded and its splinter groups banned, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). Football fans travelling to Kenilworth Road, which is in the heart of Bury Park, the 'Asian part' of town, would perhaps have seen them on the pavements, handing out pamphlets.

The last time I spoke in a political capacity in Luton was in 2005, shortly after the 7/7 bombings and only a couple of months after I'd been elected as an MP. I spoke at an event with the Pakistan High Commissioner, the two local MPs and Lord McKenzie, who is now a DWP Minister. On the way out I was confronted by someone from HT, a young man, naive, fired-up, a little foolish, and completely unable to see mine or anyone else's viewpoint. In other words, a typical young radical, the sort who if he'd not been born Muslim would probably be found selling Socialist Worker or throwing custard at cabinet ministers. Speaking to other Muslims about HT afterwards, I found that opinion was divided, between those who thought they were just idiots and those who were concerned that, given the events of 7/7, they might just be dangerous idiots.

I can't speak with any great authority on the subject, but I know that a lot of work has gone on in Luton since then to try to prevent the radicalisation of Muslim youth, as indeed it has done across the UK, under the Government's 'Prevent' agenda. Has the community become more extreme in its views? I don't think so. Admittedly, we never used to see women in burkhas when I was growing up, but I think that might be more a reflection of the different types of Muslim communities now in the town, (e.g. from Afghanistan or Iraq) rather than a change in attitudes. I think mainstream Muslim opinion is as moderate as ever. Indeed, many of the Muslims in Luton would be not just second-generation, but third generation now, and for every Muslim parent who is worried about their son or daughter becoming radical Islamists there are probably ten, twenty, a hundred, who are worried about them going off the rails in the entirely opposite direction!

I've spoken briefly about this to one of the Luton MPs tonight, and someone else in Luton. What seems clear is that it was a very small group who protested against the soldiers' parade. (You can see from the photos accompanying the Mail article - it's a handful). They were of course entirely wrong to do so, and action should be taken against anyone whose behaviour could be seen as inflammatory or an incitement to hatred.

However, some of those described by the Daily Mail as "a large number of local people, some waving Union and St George's flags" were actually BNP activists, I'm told, who had come to Luton because they knew there would be trouble. Just as the decent, law-abiding Muslim community in Luton would be appalled by the behaviour of those extremists who purport to act in the name of Islam, I would like to think that the decent, law-abiding general public in Luton would be similarly appalled by the actions of the BNP in using this homecoming event to promote their own brand of hatred.

P.S. Interesting link provided to me by Captain Fun via Twitter - local media hasn't picked up on it in same way.

Skippy, skippy!*

* As in Skippy the bush kangaroo. For younger readers.

Did a seminar today for parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth, on MPs' use of the internet, along with website maestro Derek Wyatt MP and blogging supremo Nadine Dorries. (Slightly awkward moment during Nadine's presentation when I was - helpfully I thought - scrolling through her blog on the laptop in front of me so that the audience could see projected on the big screen some of the things she was talking about, and then realised I'd inadvertently paused on a piece entitled: 'Is Britain Already Full?')

When it came to my turn, having heard from Nadine as to why she'd had to stop accepting comments, the assembled MPs were particularly interested to see my Comment of the Week from Dave H and the picture which prompted it.

Anyway, from Skippy to skipping.... Today was the parliamentary Skip2bFit challenge, where MPs compete to see who can do the most skips in 2 minutes. Despite my initial burst of enthusiasm when I received my complimentary skipping rope, complete with counter, I ended up not taking part because (a) I'm wearing a dress today that only just lets me walk up stairs, never mind skipping, and (b) I didn't fulfil my promise to myself to keep practising until I was sure that I would at least beat Ann Widdecombe (78 skips in last year's competition). Given my abject failure to participate in either this or any previous years, I am hardly in a position to comment on the performance of any other MPs, but still....

Don't know this year's results but the winner last year was David 'TC' Davies with 245. (He also won last year's Westminster Mile, must be chasing all those criminals that keeps him fit). Next was Eric Joyce with 226, then Two Brains with 211 (not just brains but brawn too!). Top woman was Bev Hughes with 170. Dawn Butler managed 56 and ended up on crutches for the next six months (skipping in heels - not a good move).

Big names included a creditable 138 from Ed Balls, a not very impressive 48 from George Osbourne and a frankly weedy 27 from Chris Huhne. 'Token skips' from Damien Green and Sir George Young. And guess who turned up just for the photo-op? Probably a sensible move though, as the footage can be seen on YouTube.

Next year, I promise you, I'll be ready for action.

On sale to the highest bidder

A typically principled approach from the Lib Dems as to who they'd choose to back after the next election. For a brief hint of actual policies, see the last para:

"At the party's spring party conference in Harrogate at the weekend, Clegg's £7bn policy programme of cuts was backed, along with scrapping of tuition fees, a pledge opposed by campaigners who think the £3bn cost would be unaffordable during a recession."

I'm confused by this. The Lib Dems on Twitter had been saying they'd won the battle against Stephen Williams, Nick Clegg and others who wanted to do a U-turn on tuition fees. Do I really have to wade through acres of Lib Dem footage to find out? [Ignore me! That's what happens when you attend breakfast meetings and start blogging before you've had a chance to get the brain into gear... I'm not confused. Not at all. I understand entirely. I was interpreting it as scrapping the tuition fees policy, not scrapping fees. But I stand by the rest of it.]

Some kind person at Dods has sent me the link - http://tinyurl.com/b4u6dz

Damned if we do, damned it we don't!

Can't find it on Times website, but here's a summary of today's story re politicians and Twitter:

‘Politicians twitter while the country burns’ (Ti p25)- Sylvester doesn’t seem to be too impressed with politicians’ use of twitter from GB downwards. She says in this country, middle-aged MPs hope they will look youthful and “in touch” if they use the latest web tool. But there is a slight Dad-on-the-dancefloor feel to some of their attempts. The content is all too often less twitter than witter. Is the reputation of politics really enhanced by the revelation Knight is “snowed under with paperwork” or that Shapps is “contemplating taking my eldest son to play football in the rain” or that Harris “can't find the TV remote control”? Twitter is reality TV without the pictures. There is a combination of neurosis and narcissism involved. The psychologist Oliver James has said: “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It's a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

Sylvester thinks that at Westminster, it is a symbol of a wider loss of confidence by the political class. At the very moment when leadership is required to deal with the economic downturn, politicians of all parties are frozen in the headlights of the recession. The Govt is now the majority shareholder of several banks but seems to have no control over the bankers. The opposition parties are quick to criticise Labour's decisions but find it hard to say what they would do instead. The political elite has been neutered by the collective failure to predict and prevent the credit crunch and their apparent powerlessness to reverse it now. There are global new deals and there is Twitter - but what precisely is there in between?

Monday 9 March 2009

Well said, Terry

Cllr Terry Cook calls for all-out elections in Bristol, once every four years. I agree. (In fact I've got a poll running on it on my 'proper' website at the moment - The elected mayor option seems to be winning at the moment 'though. Terry has also resurrected his rather fine blog. All councillors should have one! And he's on Twitter. All councillors should be on Twitter!

When rumbled, blame it on the nanny*

I know this is an old story by now, but the comment at the bottom caught my eye. A case of the pot(plant) calling the kettle black? Was talking to a senior Tory the other day (it happens sometimes) and he is convinced both the Rees-Moggs, Jacob and Annunziata, will be in Parliament at the next election. Which would at least keep the satirists happy, if no-one else.
* Mr Mogg was of course notorious for taking his nanny on the campaign trail with him when he first stood for Parliament. In his Bentley. In Barnsley. (I may have made that last bit up).

Comment of the week

I know I'm very bad at updating this, and actually this week's comment of the week is already rather old. Will try to do better in future. And so must you. Dave H has won it again, for the second 'week' in a row. We can't have that!

Sunday 8 March 2009

What is a women's issue?

The January issue of Observer Woman magazine included the following articles: - Howard Jacobson on "the brave new world of male beauty", an article on "moobs" and how to get rid of them, Jay Rayner's account of going for a full body wax and a feature on "the life of a male model". This month's includes an article by Phil Hilton on losing his hair. (And if you really want a woman's opinion Phil, you looked much better bald). I suspect you're probably ahead of me on this one....

So what is a woman's issue? And is it helpful to designate issues as such?

Sometimes it seems that the ‘women’s agenda’ revolves around one central concept: women as mothers. (Or rather ‘Mums’). It’s about having babies and bringing up babies, and sometimes about making babies too. And, in the case of most women’s magazines, finding someone who will play a small but not insignificant part in all three.

Another common thread is the idea of ‘women as victims’, with a focus on domestic violence, rape, forced marriage, prostitution and other forms of abuse. Of course these are hugely important issues. But do any of them actually need to be discussed within the silo marked ‘women’s issues?’ Men are affected by infertility, whether it be their own or their partner’s. They are sometimes the victim of domestic violence, and certainly far more likely to be the victim of violence in general. Boys are lured into prostitution, are abused, or get pressured into marriages they don’t want (although admittedly, not often to someone old enough and ugly enough to be their father).

And, perhaps most importantly, men are parents too. I have a case at the moment where a single Dad is trying to persuade his employers to honour his right to request flexible working, so he can juggle work and his childcare responsibilities. I strongly suspect they'd be a lot more accommodating - and his union a lot more supportive - if he was a woman.

On Thursday we had an International Women's Day debate in Parliament. It was on "Women and Families in the Economic Downturn". To be frank, I thought it was wrong to do so. I could perhaps have bought into the idea of a debate on "Women in the Economic Downturn" although it would have been based on what I think is probably a false premise that women will be more badly affected and that the impact on them will be overlooked unless (women?) politicians flag it up as a separate issue.

What struck me as not just wrong but positively dangerous, however, was the twinning of "Women and Families". We have to get away from the idea that families are a "woman's issue". In the same way we need to get away from the idea that teenage pregnancy is a "woman's issue" - but more about that some other time! Is it any wonder that men feel free to walk away from their commitments when the message society is sending out is that you’re not needed, that you’re a bit part player in this family drama?

So my question is: would it be more productive to push what some would call ‘women’s issues’ within the mainstream, rather than labelling them as women’s concerns, which could possibly lead to them being marginalised or give men an excuse to think that it’s not their problem, someone else is taking care of them? Or, indeed, alienate men to the extent that they think no-one is on their side? (Does there have to be sides?)

On Friday I attended a dinner in Bristol of the local BPW branch (Business and Professional Women). On Saturday I popped in at the tail end of an International Women’s Day event in Barton Hill. Many women clearly draw strength from, and enjoy such activities. I’m not going to criticise the idea of sisterhood, or the notion of women-only organisations, although I’ve never felt compelled to join one. After all, plenty of male bonding goes on every week in pubs, sports clubs and football grounds around the UK.

But I often tell people an anecdote of when I'd first got involved in the Labour Party and I realised that one of the two places on the Regional Board had fallen vacant. I asked the Regional Director about standing for it; he suggested I went for the Regional Women's Committee instead. I ignored him, got onto the Board at my first attempt and was elected Vice Chair at my first meeting. It then turned out that the Women's Committee was virtually defunct, hardly ever met, and I was automatically a member anyway by virtue of being on what I henceforth thought of as 'the Boys' Board'. (I should add, this Regional Director thought he was being helpful; he wasn't trying to block me.) The point I’m making here is that sometimes falling into the ‘women’s section’ can hinder rather than help your progress. Again, it’s about being marginalised. Almost – dare I say it – kept in your place? And sometimes other women can be as guilty as men of putting women 'in their place', because they think they need to be in that comfort zone, in the sisterhood, where they can be supported.

Something that accompanies this is what I call the ‘patronising pep talk’ tendency. Women telling other women “yes you can do this, you’re as good as the men”, which only serve to sow the seeds of doubt where previously there was none. And if the feisty young women I see when I visit schools in my constituency are anything to go by, it’s not them who need the encouragement; it’s the boys.

Finally, I also think it's important to sometimes be a little less, well serious, about things. I like Women's Hour. But I like Loose Women too. I love the Devil Wears Prada and America's Next Top Model. I like shopping. I like chocolate. I can recognise Yves St Laurent ‘cage’ shoes when I see them, or a Louboutin red sole. You don’t have to wear sensible shoes to be a feminist! (Especially not when you’re five foot one).

In fact I have – I confess - a subscription to Grazia. The magazine did a survey last year which revealed that although 73% thought things would improve with more women politicians at the helm, 98% of its readers didn’t think that female politicians had anything in common with them. As ever, I missed the opportunity to point out to them at the time that they might be wrong. But I think it shows that sometimes we need to – dare I say it – lighten up a little if we’re to show other women that we’re not so different after all.

P.S. It grieves me to have to say this, but I want to make it quite clear because I know that if I don’t, people with a certain agenda will be only too ready to twist this. This is my contribution to the debate. It is not ‘an attack’ by one Labour MP on other Labour women MPs.

Prince Charles*

Prince Charles' charity gives illegal donation to Tory women. An alternative headline could be 'Tories take illegal donation from Prince Charles' charity and misuse House of Commons facilities while they're at it'. But that's too much to expect.

Prince Charles has of course just been voted the world's best dressed man by Esquire magazine. Ronnie Corbett came second - because of the jumpers. I think this falls into the category of 'how can we make sure this survey gets a lot of media attention?' and the answer wasn't giving it to the obvious person, (Mr Obama, as if you need to ask).

*I'm suffering from a singular lack of inspiration when it comes to blog titles. Time for the return of song titles, I think.

I have, have you? Really?

I have been trying to avoid feeding the trolls. But I can't resist this.

Choice or control?

Liam Byrne is talking a lot of sense in today's Sunday Times (hot off the press!) “Sometimes we made arguments about choice that elevated the process over the outcome” he said. “We made a fetish of choice when actually what we should have been focusing on is how we give people more control over public services they pay their taxes for.”

I never signed up to the whole 'choice' agenda. People want their local school to be good and their local hospital to be good. Period.

Saturday 7 March 2009

Mo gets gold

Congratulations to Mo Farah for winning gold at 3000 metres in the European Championships. As it says on Wikipedia, he arrived in Britain in 1993 (i.e. aged ten) from Mogadishu as a refugee, speaking barely a word of English. Great role model for Somali youth, and one to watch in 2012.

PS I feel the need to elaborate on this.... I knew a man once who was, by any definition, racist. When Steven Lawrence was killed he muttered something along the lines of 'one down, another million to go'. But he adored Daley Thompson and Linford Christie because they won gold medals for Britain (and, needless to say, he was very patriotic).

Care to comment?

thebristolblogger said...
another internet fad? I give your Twitter account a month before it goes the same way as the Facebook account ...
Sat Dec 13, 07:44:00 PM

"You are making me stupider!"

I love this post. Love it. I couldn't have written it, but I should at least have tried. Orwell prize for Hopi!

Till the cows come home...

Went to a Forum for the Future event at Paintworks this morning about their plans to refit 1000 homes in Bristol, i.e. insulate, make as close to carbon neutral as possible, as part of the "UK's most sustainable city" project. Then met with reps from Equity, Bectu and South West Screen, and Doug Naysmith MP, to talk about the campaign to Keep Casualty in Bristol. The decision is expected by the end of the month. Lots of compelling reasons to keep it here. Then an afternoon interviewing for Pot Noodle Boy's replacement, and then a dinner at the Hilton in Aztec West with the Bristol branch of 'Business and Professional Women'. Tomorrow it's campaigning in Easton and popping into an International Women's Day event at Barton Hill Settlement.

So, tired and not blogging tonight. Here's something else to read, which I discovered through Twitter. The Price of Meat blog. Facts, facts and yet more facts. Till the cows come home.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Update on 'It's good to be in a gang'

A postscript to my earlier blog. The prisoner who gave evidence to the Committee has had his day release revoked. Seems a bit of a shame. I've forwarded the story to the Home Affairs Select Committee members to see what they think.

A somewhat shorter post - on the post

Have agreed to meet up with Billy Hayes from the CWU for a one-to-one chat about the Royal Mail. Next week probably.

I'm tempted to ask if I can invite Hopi along too, as he's done an intelligent (as ever) blog on the issue, which, setting to one side the 'public good, private bad' debate, looks at what is the core issue: does the Royal Mail need someone to sort out its pensions deficit, along with significant investment, modernisation and efficiency gains? (To which the answer is yes.)

The next question then is where do you get this money from? Internal generation of revenue by raising the price of postal services, changing the competition rules so that the Royal Mail can compete on a level playing field, using the rest of the £1.2bn it was given by the Government to fund modernisation, and (possibly) a degree of cost-cutting? Would that be enough to ensure the Royal Mail's survival, in the face of a 7-8% drop each year in its business (and that's without the price rises) without future Government subsidy? I don't know - the CWU suggest, I think, that it could be.

If it's not enough, then it's about either about a Government bail-out, borrowing, or a private sector partner. The Government has already pledged to sort out the huge pension deficit, and, quite reasonably, doesn't want to stump up any more cash. And I don't have much patience with the 'what's a few more hundred million more amongst friends?' line. (Ditto the 'well you spent £Xm on the war' or 'you're spending £xm on bailing out the banks' - that doesn't mean there's loads of money to go round, it means there's a lot less!)

Could the Royal Mail borrow on the open market? Hopi thinks not. I don't know. Admittedly, interest rates are incredibly low (and have just got lower as I've been typing), but that's not being passed on to loan rates and the banks are still reluctant to lend. Could this be facilitated with a Government guarantee? The alternative is to bring in someone from the private sector who does have the funds. The union's fear is that they would then seek to recoup their investment by slashing jobs and terms and conditions. They say that is how the private sector makes money. Sometimes that's true. But it's a distortion of how the private sector works. You can also make money by winning more business, being better than others in the market, making efficiency gains which are nothing to do with terms and conditions.

The other aspect I'd be interested to know about, is that the CWU say that the postal service has lost 40,000 jobs over recent years. This shows its willingness to modernise. But how many of these job losses are jobs that no longer exist anywhere in the mail market, and how many of them are now in the private sector, with their competitors? Mail volumes have gone down across the board, there has been significant automation, so inevitably this will mean fewer workers are needed - but some of them must have been taken on by TNT and others. How do you put a figure on the number of jobs that could be lost if a private partner came in? And would those jobs be lost as a sad but inevitable consquence of modernisation or because of a dash for profits? Discuss.

Epolitix have just told me through Twitter that they're running a poll on this.


Wednesday 4 March 2009

The genius that is John Prescott

Here he is on Twitter: "Gordon's speech was brilliant but Adam Boulton lives on another planet http://tinyurl.com/bxzmey and that planet is planet cheeseburger" Haven't read the link yet, but planet cheeseburger was good enough for me.

More on pubs and why they're closing

Did a pre-record for BBC Radio Bristol earlier on why pubs are closing. Incidentally today's BEP article is a tad misleading - gives a figure of 48 for 'the Bristol area', which turns out to include Weston-super-Mare. I don't think people from Weston (what do you call them, Super Mares?) would regard themselves as being in the Bristol area. It's only 27 closures in Bristol in the last couple of years, although that includes a bit of South Gloucs in Doug Naysmith's seat and doesn't include the two Bristol wards in Roger Berry's constituency.

Anyway, here are some of the reasons I suggested. Be warned - this contains gross generalisations, sexist stereotyping, and the portrayal of a mythical Britain that probably never existed.

1. Changing demographics in east Bristol - many more houses being converted into flats, which means they become inhabited by young people who don't frequent their neighbourhood pubs. They're far more likely to stay in during the week and rent a DVD or get a take-away, and then go out in the city centre bars at the weekend. Or they have young kids and have no social life at all. And an increase in the Somali population too, who being Muslim don't drink.

2. More TV channels and the internet - in the days of 3 channels people would go to the pub if there was nothing decent on telly. Now they can watch loads of channels, or spend hours on the internet. I guess more ways of communicating with people also has an impact - people would in the past have turned up at the pub in the expectation of seeing the same faces there; now it's easier to arrange to do something different instead, or to text or call someone on their mobile if they're in the pub but you can't be bothered to go out. And all the single men are playing computer games.

3. Changing work patterns and role of men/ women - in the olden days, which I remember well, men would go out to work, come home at 5.30 to find their dinner on the table, and then go off to the pub. Now men work longer hours, get home later (possibly after going for a drink straight after work in the city centre), have to cook their own dinner or at least wait for it to be cooked when their wife/ partner gets in from work too. And they'd get a hard time from the wife if they cleared off to the pub every night leaving her to do the washing up. Also - I think maybe men and women talk to each other more these days? By which I mean, women talk and men grunt occasionally to maintain the pretext of listening.

4. People go out to eat more. In the olden days, people very rarely used to go for a meal. Perhaps on special occasions. Now, whenever I meet up with friends, it's nearly always for a meal, with perhaps a quick drink beforehand (although if it's just the lads in my circle of friends getting together, it would be a night in the pub, followed by a kebab).

5. Women and men socialise together more, and women don't like spit and sawdust, beer and darts.

6. Supermarkets are selling very cheap alcohol. People are more health-conscious and men are trying to drink less beer. They're more likely to crack open a bottle of wine at home these days.

7. Less tolerance of drink-driving, and people not being prepared to walk more than half a mile anywhere.

8. The economic downturn. Pubs are small businesses and just like any other business they will struggle when times are tougher.

9. Pubs aren't what they used to be. Irish theme pubs, soulless chains... although actually some pubs are a lot better than they used to be. Those that are thriving might offer decent food, or have Sky Sports on widescreen TV, or have quiz nights. But does that put some people off?

10. Some would say the smoking ban. But we are not going there on this post, and according to the Public Health Minister who I spoke to earlier today and who, I believe, attended the 'Axe the Beer Tax' event in Parliament, there is absolutely no evidence for this.

Comments welcome on points 1 to 9. We've done 10.

Do we need to extend the smoking ban?

I think even F2C might draw the line at this.

In the land of the giants

I was trying to do a 'Help I'm about to be crushed by a giant bulldozer!' pose. Not very successfully by the look of it.

Tough on grime, tough on the causes of grime

I'm liking Alistair Campbell's blog, especially the latest one about the dishwasher. I can empathise, having been banned for many years from washing up because I was 'rubbish at it'. But I think his blog post should be on the left and the comments on the right; at the moment it's like reading something backwards.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

We know where you live

Excellent post by Tom Harris on whether MPs should have the right to keep their home addresses secret - and some intelligent, supportive comments too. (As well as some that are considerably less intelligent, but that's OH for you). Star comment must go to his wife Carolyn, who has very bravely raised her head above the parapet.

Not going to accept comments on this post. I'm sure there's a word for someone who poaches a subject from someone else, stealing the attention without doing any of the work, but whatever it is, I don't want to be one. So if you have views, off you go to his blog. (Sorry, Tom!)

It's good to be in a gang

It's not every day that you get approached by someone whose opening line is "I'm a lifer, I've been in prison for 18 years for murder and this is my first day out". But that's what happened on Monday, as I was making an early departure from the Home Affairs Select Committee meeting at the Trinity Centre in Bristol. This guy had been standing at the side, watching what was going on. He said he'd been doing some plastering work at the Trinity Centre and had overheard what was going on, and wanted to join in the discussion, so I popped back and asked Keith Vaz if he could. By all accounts he made a very interesting contribution to the debate. Somewhat bizarre though - 18 years in prison and you end up giving evidence to a Select Committee on your first day of release.

I only caught the first hour of the session, as I had to get to London, but there were some really interesting points emerging. We talked with a crowd of young people and community activists about the role of parents, and the fact that ever younger children are now carrying knives. It's all going to be in the Select Committee's report, but one of the things that struck me suddenly was the realisation that belonging to "a gang" per se is not a bad thing. It can be good to be in a gang. Often young people look to peer groups to find the emotional support and understanding they don't get at home or at school. Or sometimes it's even less complicated than that; it's just about hanging out with a bunch of mates. Gangs might be about security (safety in numbers) but they're also about having a laugh and pursuing common interests. (OK, yes, sometimes they're about crime and territorial wars and drug-dealing and intimidation too, but let's park that for now).

When I was 15, 16, 17 I used to meet up with the same group of friends - Steve, Chris, Mark, Lewis, Joe, Antonella and Emma (my sister) - down the park virtually every night. We'd camp out on the steps of Luton museum, listening to Joy Division and Lynton Kwesi Johnson on Lewis' ghettoblaster until it was time to head home to catch the John Peel show at 10pm. Or at the weekend we'd meet in Mark's outhouse, play cards and listen to 'Slates' by the Fall, Theatre of Hate and the Birthday Party. Sometimes the Cocteau Twins if Mark had his way. Or Psychik TV if Chris had his. And every now and again we'd head down to London on the train to see bands at the Hammersmith Palais or the Lyceum or the Town and Country Club

I'm sure my teenage nephews and nieces are just the same, albeit with rather different taste in music. But I bet that when some people see the 18 year old nephew and the 17 year old niece with their mates, they respond completely differently to when they see their 15 year old and 17 year old cousins. Why? Because two of them are white, and two are mixed race. How many people see a group of friends in the first instance, and a 'gang' in the second?

But I digress... What I'm wondering is this: youth work tends to involve bringing lots of young people together under one roof. The Government will be announcing extra spending on this later this week. And yes, youth centres are good. But would it be better if more spaces were created for young people to break off into their gangs, and be with the mates they really want to be with? Is there something slightly artificial about forcing fifty or sixty or more young people to socialise together and is there an optimum size for a gathering? (Actually that's what we used to call it when we went round Mark's house: a gathering). Should we be encouraging gangs instead of demonising them?
Stop press - this is the news I was expecting, about extra funding. £5 million. Not bad.


Can people please stop posting the same comments over and over again? If it hasn't appeared it's either because it's waiting to be moderated - we're on a running whip and I've got meetings too so I am not chained to my desk eagerly awaiting your next contribution - or it's because I've rejected it as O/T. Belinda, you fall into the latter category!

Pubs - the stats

Have just been sent a PDF file from a campaign group re pub closures since 2005. First figure is June 2005, second is June 2007 (that of course being just before the introduction of the smoking ban), third is February 2009.

Bristol East = 127 126 115 (-12)
Bristol North West = 51 51 48 (-3)
Bristol South = 76 78 72 (-4)
Bristol West = 271 276 263 (-8)

Bristol West, for non-locals, covers most of the city centre, hence the proliferation of pubs/ bars there. And Bristol East includes the remaining bit. Not sure quite what this proves - yes, there have been closures, but some are no doubt due to economic factors and increased competition from other premises. Doesn't seem to me that the smoking ban has had the huge impact which its opponents claim.