Thursday 28 May 2009

Explanatory note

Have tried to communicate this via Twitter but in case you haven't picked up on it...

Basically I'm in Bristol and my laptop expired on me at the weekend, so I don't really have the ability to blog in the evenings. Laptop is parliamentary issue, so can't get it repaired till I return to Commons on Monday.

In the office at the moment but got lots of work to do, and out campaigning too. Bit frustrating, seeing as so much is going on at the moment, but there you go, I am technologically cursed. Normal service will be resumed next week.

Friday 22 May 2009

More on the Speaker

Was about to spend a few minutes blogging about how the contest to be the next Speaker could end up being a rerun of the abortion debate by proxy. Nadine Dorries is backing Frank Field, with whom she worked on her recent attempts to amend the abortion limits, and Ann Widdecombe is also being touted as a runner. I'm backing John Bercow, who was described by Ms Dorries on her blog as being an enthusiast for 'the pursuit of gynaecological bloodsports', because he opposed her on the issue.

I say was about to... Paul Smith has done his usual annoying trick of turning up early, and we're off to Somaliland Independence Day celebrations. It will have to wait.

Postscript: Here's my original post re the 'bloodsports' issue.

And can I just say, I don't want this in any way to be construed as a personal attack on Nadine. It's about her politics. She's obviously finding it very tough at the moment, and although her problems may be self-inflicted to a degree, I don't want to put the boot in, to her or anyone else.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Quick update

No time to blog today because it's last day before recess and have to clear desk before heading to Bristol. Will be in the constituency for most of the next few weeks, as it's elections the week after, apart from visiting the hospital (which is excellent, I have to say - NHS has been fantastic, from the speed with which the ambulance arrived to the cleanliness of the hospital and the friendliness of the staff. I have promised to pass on this praise to AJ). Tomorrow I will be on the buses in Bristol as the car is still suspension-less. Always good to do that occasionally to check out the service, although having now worked out it means leaving home at 7.30am to be at my first appointment, I'm not so convinced... And yes, I know plenty of people have to do that every day, but that doesn't mean I actually have to enjoy the experience.

News from Westminster.... Bercow bandwagon for Speaker gathering pace. Had a good chat with him yesterday. Haven't heard anyone say they're supporting another candidate, but that may well be because I don't mix in those circles. There will be at least one hustings, on June 17th, which I can imagine will be a daunting prospect for the candidates. Good news too re Gurkhas; have spent the past couple of weeks drafting and redrafting letters to go out to those constituents who had contacted me about the issue, which now have to be rewritten! Posted expenses on website a few days ago and went through with journo too. I'm sure we will still be talking about the same issue when Parliament returns on Monday 1st June. We've got the Second Reading of the Immigration and Citizenship Bill on the Tuesday, so will be aiming to speak in that debate. And then it will be the local elections. As we are now in pre-election purdah I shall be banning party political broadcasts on behalf of the Green Party from now onwards. Hope you're listening Glenn!

Tuesday 19 May 2009

The Speaker

I have a huge amount of work to get through this evening, so not much time to blog but in view of today's events, thought I should at least blog quickly on the Speaker's resignation.

Was first told the news by Sadie of Sadie's Tavern fame as I was racing on my way to PPS in a Westminster Hall debate. Went into a packed Chamber a bit later for his statement but before doing so I joined other (mostly) Labour colleagues in the Member's Lobby to applaud Michael Martin as the Speaker's Procession went by.

I accept that he made the right decision, that there was no way he could stay on. He's a thoroughly nice and decent man, but it's difficult to see how he could have steered the Commons through the rocky waters ahead. But even so.... I'm not someone who has much time for the pomp and ceremony of parliamentary tradition, but hounding a Speaker out of office in this way seems like the wrong way to go about things. Someone said to me on Twitter that politics was no place for the sensitive. No, but we should have some respect for the dignity of the office. And some respect for the man too.

Anyway, I've already nailed my colours to the mast regarding my support for John Bercow, and although he hasn't declared his name is certainly being talked about. Martin Salter is on Channel 4 News at the moment, saying that the next Speaker should be 'a fully-paid up member of the modernising tendency', 'dragging this gentlemen's club kicking and screaming into the 21st century' - which means Bercow. (A much changed creature since he stood against Dawn Primarolo in Bristol South many years ago.) The difficulty will be in finding Tories to support him! (They seem to be pushing Frank Field.... in which case they'd have the opposite problem!)

It's generally accepted we can't have another Labour candidate, given that the past two Speakers have been Labour MPs. Other names in the frame are Sir Alan Beith, Sir George Young, Richard Shepherd (my God!) and someone mentioned David Heath too, although I think it would be wrong to have anyone who is currently serving on the front bench, given that the Speaker should really be someone who can stand above party politics. David Davis has also been on Channel 4 saying 'this is going to be the most powerful Speaker in history' - 'the first Speaker who can actually bang people's heads together'. Yes, which means it's no job for a grandee.

As for the connection between this and the MPs' expenses row. Yes, it's a distraction but I think it was more a case of people (MPs/ media) scenting blood when the Speaker was wounded, rather than it being deliberately stoked up to distract attention from the Telegraph's revelations.

Monday 18 May 2009


Was in the Chamber for the Speaker's statement, which I suspect will do little to address the current turmoil. I was rather surprised that he didn't seem to know the status of Douglas Carswell's motion of no confidence, calling it an early day motion, and then having to check with the clerks whether it was indeed a substantive motion before confirming that it was actually one of the 'remaining orders of the day'. He then had to check again with the clerks how or if it could ever become a substantive motion, which would mean it gets debated in the main Chamber and voted upon. I'd have thought he'd have been briefed on all that before coming before the House.

Anyway, the answer seems to be that the Government (which would mean Harriet as the Leader of the House) has to decide to put it on the Order Paper, so the question now I suppose is how many signatures would the motion have to obtain before Harriet feels it has be debated? Obviously can't debate every motion that gets a few signatures as otherwise we'd never get round to normal parliamentary business, but what would be a critical mass? 10% of backbenchers? 20%?

We're working through the ACA (second home) receipts at the moment with a view to publishing them tonight or tomorrow. The technical difficulty is this:

- The Fees Office will be publishing 'redacted' copies in due course, by mid-June it's hoped. These will have all sensitive details blacked out, e.g. home addresses, bank account details, credit card details, staff details (i.e. the addresses and bank account details), etc.

- At the moment, however, MPs have been given online access to, and paper copies upon request, of a different set of papers, which has the redacted bits shown in grey - i.e. you can see what is going to be blacked out, but it's still visible at the moment. This is what the Telegraph has got its hands on.

- The only way for an MP to publish the redacted version therefore is to sit down with the paper copies, black out the grey bits, scan them onto the computer (with, in my case, a doddery old fax machine as the scanner which doesn't like scanning more than a couple of pages at a time) and then publish.

- Frank Field has found a way to do this online, i.e. changing the grey bits to black, but apparently techno-buffs would find it quite easy to turn them back to grey.

- We've been told by the Fees Office that as soon as we publish the claims ourselves, we become responsible under the Data Protection Act for any information put into the public domain. So we have to be quite careful about what we put online.

I intend to put online some of the information that the Fees Office has redacted. For example, there is one claim where they have blacked out a sume of c£1200 claimed by me for security and a note explaining that I'd cleared this with someone in the Fees Office, and it was because I'd been burgled twice. I can't see why this is particularly sensitive information. Also, the total claim for that month still includes that sum, so if I was to publish the redacted version people would be wondering what on earth the missing £1200 was spent on. I also don't see why it's necessary to redact the names of the places where I bought things, or the dates - e.g. there's a receipt from Purves and Purves from 30th December 2005. Everything on that receipt has been redacted by the Fees Office, except the amount. Obviously I'd want my credit card details kept private, but I don't have a problem with people knowing where I purchased something from or the fact I waited until the end of year sales to do so!

As for the IEP (office costs) allowances - the bundles of paper are huge. The claims forms are of two types - direct payment to suppliers, and reimbursement of MPs' expenditure. I don't think the first type (C2) is particularly interesting, it's mostly receipts from Banner, the parliamentary stationery suppliers, and office bills. The second type (C1) usually includes these items: office cleaner, mobile phone, surgery room hire, petty cash and a direct debit for the office electricity. Depending on how complicated it turns out to be to do the ACA forms, I'll then do C2 and C1 forms, in that order, but without all the receipts (or the Banner receipts at least - I can assure you I don't have a sideline in selling paper clips and staplers on the black market). I would stress that these are going to be published by mid-June anyway so I'm not hiding anything, I'm just trying to keep a balance between accountability and getting on with the day job.

Gordon Brown is speaking at the PLP again tonight, at 6pm. That makes two weeks in a row, which is unprecedented.

What an imposition

On an earlier post, A Little Bit More about Expenses, the Bristol Blogger and I got into a bit of a discussion about the cost of getting selected/ elected as a Labour MP, where I said that the only way round the cost issue would be central imposition of candidates.

Here's a teaser then - which member of the current Cabinet was 'imposed' on the local party by the National Executive shortly before a General Election? (I think I might be right in saying s/he's the only Labour MP in Parliament who was selected without local party members having any say). And which other member of the current Cabinet was on the two-person shortlist?

Sunday 17 May 2009

Potholes and Parliament

For various complicated reasons I am neither at my constituency home or London home this weekend (mostly connected with wanting to be near Harefield hospital, nothing more exciting than that). I've been sleeping on a blow-up mattress which has semi-deflated by the time morning comes, wearing someone's padded check shirt to keep warm. My mobile phone battery has gone, and apparently so have the front springs on the suspension of my Smart Car Roadster. Which explains why it's been driving like an old jalopy for the past few months - I'd blamed it on the arrival of the new Lib Dem adminstration on Bristol City Council, envisaging them sending out crack squads to create potholes in the road just so they could take the credit for fixing them. (And of course to provide the essential backdrop for the all-important election leaflet 'standing pointing at potholes with a deeply wounded expression on your face' photos).

Anyway, onto more serious matters.... And time for yet another confession from me. Since I was elected in 2005 I've paid little attention to what could be termed the 'back office' side of Parliament. I always thought that MPs who banged on about parliamentary process, who sat on things like the Administation Committee, who knew and cared what the Serjeant-at-Arms did or why we have a person called Black Rod and what he does when he's not banging on the Chamber door once a year, had, frankly, 'gone native'. They were the parliamentary equivalent of members of the school council or the Junior Common Room; necessary, I suppose, but I couldn't understand why they'd gone to the bother of standing for parliament only to spend their time in committee debating the pressing issue of whether spotted dick should remain on the menu in the Members' Dining Room.

Basically I learned what I needed to learn about parliamentary procedure - how to tell what you're voting on and when, how to table an amendment, what a programme motion is, what's a valid point of order - without bothering too much about the rest. I worked on the assumption that someone else was taking care of things, whether it be Sir this and Sir that from the Tory benches, or the old hands on the Labour side who delighted in such matters, or the Palace of Westminster staff who were employed to make sure the cogs and wheels turned behind the stage curtains, enabling us politicians to take our place in the spotlight and do the serious stuff.

The events of the past year or so, from the Damian Green affair to MPs' expenses have however been the equivalent of the stage curtain being accidentally raised in the middle of Act Two. Or like the Wizard of Oz when his curtain is pulled back by Toto.

I think many of us though, particularly the newer MPs who had come into Parliament to pursue causes they cared passionately about, or took very seriously the job of representing their constituents, still didn't pay that much attention when the FOI requests were put in, or when David Maclean put forward his private member's bill to exempt MPs from it, or when the Speaker made various rulings. It wasn't real politics, it was process. It wasn't what we came into politics for.

But recent events have convinced me however, that those of us who just kind of went along with it were wrong to do so. Much as I would like to just get in and drive my car without caring about the front suspension springs (or in the case of the previous one, without putting my mind to the trivial issue of whether it needed oil and water, which is what killed it), the fact is - you can't drive without a sound vehicle. And Parliament at the moment is not a sound vehicle. (Tempting though it would be to labour this metaphor even further by talking about Nick Clegg's criticism of the Speaker as being akin to standing in the road pointing at a pothole, I won't...)

My feeling at the moment is that it looks as if it's going to be us, those politicians who haven't taken much of an interest till now, the younger generation, who will have to step up to the mark on this. We need to sort Parliament out. I just hope it's not too late to do so.

Saturday 16 May 2009


The one thing I can put into the public domain today, as I've been carrying them around in my handbag since Friday, are the figures for my expnses in the 2008-09 financial year, which aren't part of the current revelations/ publication. I don't have a detailed breakdown or any forms or receipts, just the summary.

The Incidental Expenses Provision (commonly known as the office costs allowance) and the Staffing Allowance are transferable, so, as has been my practice in previous years any money not spent under the IEP I will transfer to the staffing allowance - and if there's a little bit of money left over at the end of the financial year, I will pay it to them as an end-of-year bonus, to compensate for working long hours, for not a great wage and for putting up with me. We're talking hundreds, not thousands by the way. (Athough a bonus of up to 15% of salary is permissible under the rules). All this is by way of explaining that give or take a few pennies and a few bills left to settle I have spent my IEP and my staffing allowances for the 2008-9 year in full.

So - the figures are:

Office costs - £19,985
Staffing - £102,413
Communications - £9,056.68 (out of max. £10,400 allowance, i.e. 87%)
ACA (second home) - £16,961 (out of possible £24,000, i.e. 70.65%)

My ACA claim is relatively low for several reasons. One is because once you've bought the sofa and bed and TV and blinds/ curtains and a few bits and pieces, there's no need to spend any more on such items. Second, I've claimed much less for food, for reasons I've explained in a previous post. And most significantly, interest rates have gone down. And this is an issue for everyone who says that MPs should not be allowed to buy their second home with taxpayer help, but should only be allowed to rent. It's actually much cheaper for the taxpayer if an MP buys, at the moment.

At the moment on a £200k tracker mortgage someone would be paying c.£600 per month capital and £350 or so per month interest, MPs are not allowed to claim for the capital repayments, only the interest. Even a few years ago, the interest on such a mortgage would only be have been around the £1000-£1100 mark. If you try searching for a flat to let in SW1 or SE1, i.e. within a mile or so of Westminster, you'd be hard pushed to find even a studio for much less than £1000pm. So, perversely, allowing an MP to buy rather than rent is - unless interest rates go back to 1980s levels - cheaper for the taxpayer.

The next issue that raises its ugly head is whether MPs should be allowed to keep any profit made when they sell a flat which they've purchased with taxpayers' assistance. Let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether the taxpayer has paid for the sort of improvements and extensions and refurbuishments that would significantly add to a property's value.... I don't think that should be allowed and I don't think it's going to be allowed from now on. (For the record the only thing I've claimed on expenses that might perhaps fall into that category is an alarm system and better locks, but after being burgled twice in one month, and neighbouring flats being broken into while people were actually at home, I thought that was fairly reasonable).

Anyway, let's assume for the sake of argument that there are no fripperies, no porticos being added, no moats being dug. The property still has Artex ceilings, a lawn full of moles and a chimney choked with wisteria. If someone is paying the capital element on a £200k mortgage over 20 years they'd be paying about £7000 a year out of their own salary. So when the property's sold, should they have to, as some are suggesting, handing over all the profit to the Fees office? And then there's the question of what happens if the property is sold at a loss... would the Fees office stump up for that too?

Anyway, that's enough from me. Thought I should do my bit to keep the debate going. Have a listen if you have a moment to the last podcast from Tom Harris and Jamie Reed on Tom's site. I think you can tell from their voices (and they're usually both quite chirpy souls) just how shell-shocked some MPs are by all this. It's been grim, relentlessly grim. And no doubt we have more joys to look forward to in tomorrow's press...

Human (2)

Just over a month ago I posted an explanation as to why I had been out of circulation for a few days (Human). Reluctant as I was to talk about personal matters, I felt I had to do so to justify my online absence around the time of the so-called McBride affair. This is obviously not a good time to go offline again, but someone very close to me had a heart attack Thursday morning and I have spent most of the past 48 hours at Harefield Hospital. (This is not the person mentioned in the 'Human' post, who is currently having chemo and will be operated on soon.)

So... that's why I haven't yet been able to publish my expenses, because all the paperwork is in Westminster and I haven't been there since Wednesday night. And it's why I won't be at the Hope Not Hate campaign day in St George tomorrow, with Billy Bragg (see Hope Not Hate on Facebook for details). All Government Ministers have been told by Gordon Brown that they must be ready to publish their expenses by close of play on Monday. I hope to be able to do so too, personal circumstances permitting.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

The next Speaker

I don't really want to get drawn into the whole debate about whether the Speaker should stay or go. I suspect the motives of some, 'though not all of those who are calling for his resignation but I accept that there are concerns on a number of fronts. But, I will say one thing. When Speaker Martin steps down, whether it happens sooner or later, there is one thing above all that will decide my vote.

I don't want the next Speaker to be someone who sees his/ her role as 'protecting the traditions of the House'. I want the Speaker to be a moderniser, someone who recognises that Parliament needs to change: to become more effective, more influential, more accountable. For that reason, of all the names in the frame at the moment, I'm likely to back John Bercow (incidentally, the only Tory who voted in favour of the Equality Bill on Monday) if a vacancy comes up. I'm sure Sir George Young and Sir Menzies Campbell are both decent men, but they're old school and old school's the last thing we need at the moment.

Still here...

Still here... had a couple of votes, and although the vast majority of Tories have clearly gone home, their junior frontbencher Greg Hands has obviously been told he's got to keep things going. It's not about winning any votes, or even making any coherent political argument, it's just about wearing us all into the ground, just because they can and possibly also so that at PMQs tomorrow a relatively bright and breezy bunch of Tory MPs will be facing a completely knackered Labour crew. There goes the division bell again.

Still at work...

The rooms at the Palace of Westminster tonight are occupied by weary and despondent MPs, waiting for the last vote of the night on the Finance Bill and finally getting round to looking through the paper copies of their expenses forms. Or at least when we left the tearoom that's where we all said we were going. One senior MP said it had taken him 7 hours to do his, although I can't really see why as it's taken me less than an hour to do everything except the second homes stuff, which in terms of paperwork is actually the smallest bundle. We used to get the office windows cleaned every week - a situation I inherited from the previous MP, along with her office. It was ages before I even realised that. (I hope you will appreciate I had other priorities in the first few years after being elected and my office manager dealt with those invoices). I obviously have lower standards as we now get them cleaned on an 'as needed' basis - i.e. never.

I am going to try to post everything on the website by the end of the week; obviously not all the pages, because there are hundreds of invoices for things like pens and paper clips, but a clear summary of the bits people would be interested in. Spoke to David Laws in the lift today, as had heard he'd already done it. He has, he's told me, posted details of his 2008-09 claims too, so I will attempt to do that. (I say 'attempt' - if I fail it will be because of my inferior grasp of technology, not any more sinister reason!)

As for commenting on the various announcements and further revelations today, I will leave that until I've worked out what's going on. I do think Andrew George is unfortunate in having a very attractive daughter, in that it means his story is bound to get far more coverage than it would do otherwise.

There you go, that's the division bell. Last vote of the night, I hope.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Kind invitation from the Daily Telegraph

"Dear Member of Parliament,
Telegraph TV gives MPs right of reply
Tomorrow the Telegraph is giving all MPs the chance to put their side of the expenses story at the Telegraph TV Expenses Files video booth. Our commitment is that we will publish, unedited on our website whatever you have to say provided it deals with the revelations in our paper and on our website, isn't libelous and is less than two minutes in length. The video booth will be situated in The Atrium, 4 Millbank from 10am to 4pm tomorrow. Our video production team will be on hand to help and we would be delighted to see you.
Best wishes,
Guy Ruddle
Head of Telegraph TV"

Monday 11 May 2009

A little bit more about expenses

Just a few little factoids I picked up today in conversation with MPs about, what else, expenses. One MP told how when it came to setting up a second home in London she called the Fees Office to ask what they considered to be a reasonable amount to spend on a TV. They wouldn't tell her. All they would say was that it was whatever you would normally spend on such an item. So, she said, if I spend about £300-400 which is what my TV at my family home cost, would that be OK? After some consultation they came back: yes. OK then, she said, how about if at my family home I had a £3000 plasma TV? Would it be OK to claim £3000 in London? After some consultation, another yes. So - if you've already got one big TV you're allowed another one, but if you've only got a small one, you're not. Which means you end up with the scenario where one MP is claiming for a chandelier while most of us are shopping in Ikea. (Haven't read tomorrow's stories about the Tory grandees yet, but I hope you will excuse me for quite looking forward to it. Actually have just found it on the Telegraph website. £14,000 for a housekeeper? How on earth was that ever allowed through? And clearing the moat around his manor house? And work to his stables and for his piano to be tuned? That's the aptly named Douglas Hogg.)

Another MP told me this tale. Apparently you're not allowed to claim for items for children under the second home allowance. So although he quite understandably wanted his family to be able to spend time in both places with him, he couldn't claim for a child's bed. However.... he was told it would be perfectly in order for him to buy another double bed, on the grounds that he could in theory choose to sleep in either one. So - a little bed not allowed, a big one is fine. Mad, isn't it?

What I have learned today in Parliament

Just a very quick post before I head off home. Went into Chamber right at end of the Equality Bill Second Reading, at 9.59pm, to see Vera Baird in full flow but with Harriet Harman tugging frantically at her jacket to try to get her to sit down.

I didn't know till now but on a Second Reading if the Minister is still speaking at 10pm, it means the Bill is lost. I thought you could just carry on speaking till the Speaker called time, but no, apparently not. You learn something every day.

Division bell has gone again. Wasn't expecting that. Bye!

She don't use jelly

For no particular reason other than it made me go 'yuk'. I went swimming in the Black Sea off Yalta once, and there were hundreds of jellyfish; it was like swimming in tapioca. But not ones this size, thank God.

Morning has broken

OK, final post of the night. It's 1.30am and I'm wide awake. I'm seriously considering introducing an amendment to the Equalities Bill (due in Parliament later today), which would prohibit discrimination against those of us who suffer from 'not being a morning person'. Compulsory attendance at breakfast meetings would obviously be grounds for a constructive dismissal claim. Radio stations booking you in for an 8am slot and then changing it to 7am at the last moment could find themselves in the law courts. Mothers who force their children to sit at the breakfast table with a bowl of cereal growing soggier by the moment at a time of day when no reasonable person would consider eating (and yes, I'm talking about you, Mother) could find their offspring the subject of care proceedings. What do you reckon?

Hanging around

The first in what I hope will be a regular series of sketches on LabourList from Labour's answer to Quentin Letts, Sadie Smith... and I've nicked the picture because I like it. How great would it be to abseil down Big Ben? You would just have to do the hanging off the big hand thing though, while you were at it, wouldn't you?

You ain't going nowhere

Have finally cracked open the (18 month old) West Wing box set, although had to resort to watching in on my (very small) laptop because the DVD player refused to cooperate. (And yes, I do think it's personal. Technology has a grudge against me, which manifests itself at every given opportunity. I don't know why, but it does. The only reason I'm blogging now is because the TV has also decided to stop working too, so I can't watch the news which I hope is about the Tories, not us).

The fleeting possibility that just maybe there's someone out there at this very moment being lined up to replace Damian McBride in the Downing Street press corps who looks exactly like Sam Seaborn is the only thing that has kept me from jumping off the balcony this weekend, which has of course been profoundly depressing on all fronts. Although I would settle for Josh Lynam.

Also on the subject of American politics, did you see Obama do his comedy routine in front of the press corps? Nailed it. Naturally. Doesn't he always? He said his first 100 days had been such a success that they were going to complete the next 100 days in 72. And on the 73rd day, he would rest. And there was a joke about Hilary and swine flu, but more about that in a moment.

All this has got me thinking. In the USA the President is the President is the President. Nothing short of impeachment or death can stop him being President until his term of office is over. OK, there's a theoretical possibility as he approaches the end of his first term that his party could dump him for someone more popular, but it's a remote one. Which means - or at least it seems to me from where I'm sitting - that you remove at one stroke all the endless speculation about leadership and challenges and rivalries that is such an obsession of the British political chattering classes.

Take the joke Obama made about Hilary Clinton last night. He said that although they'd been rivals during the primaries, they'd grown a lot closer; she'd given him a great big hug when she got back from Mexico and said that he should pay it a visit too. Now imagine what the press reaction would have been if Gordon Brown had made the same joke about David Miliband...

What impact would it have on British politics if we had fixed term parliaments, a maximum two terms in office for a Prime Minister, and a rule that the party in Government could not change its leader except at election time? Which I appreciate would rule out the Blair/ Brown handover in 2006, although it would almost certainly have meant a Blair/ Brown handover in 2005 and a clear mandate for Gordon from the electorate.

I'm not actually an advocate of fixed parliaments, as I can't see what would happen if no one party got a majority - would you have to limp on for four years trying to hold a coalition together? But still.... I'd give an awful lot to get away from the endless sniping and speculation and gossip - most of it totally uninformed and inaccurate, but damaging nonetheless - about leadership ambitions and potential coups and backbench plotting that we have at the moment.

Sunday 10 May 2009

You're not up to much

OK, this post is going to be a tricky one, but I feel it's about time I had a bash at it. Tricky because I want to talk about women in public life and the extent to which physical appearance or, to be more precise, attractiveness should be the subject of comment. And in doing so, to illustrate my argument, I will have to repeat some comments I regard as offensive. Anyway...

Non-Bristolian readers may not be familiar with the output of Bristol's answer to Woodward and Bernstein, the Bristol Blogger, who hides under the clock of anonymity but I would wager is probably not quite as attractive as Robert Redford in his All the President's Men days. (Feel free to provide any evidence that proves me wrong!)

The Blogger spends most of his time railing against the goings on at Bristol City Council and one of his targets is the fairly new Chief Executive, Jan Ormondroyd, whom he has wittily dubbed Jan 'Bum Disease'. So far, so par for the course. But in a recent post about her he also felt the need to refer to 'saggy tits' and 'bad teeth' and called her 'a sad old moose'. His defence? That the Chief Exec 'uses' her appearance in her line of work and has put herself at the forefront of various publicity efforts by the Council, and therefore such criticism is permissible.

Through Twitter I asked him whether she 'used her breasts' and he said 'they have been noted'. I replied by asking, 'noted as in deliberately put on public display, or noted just because they exist?' (In which case virtually every woman would be fair game). I didn't get an answer. I don't think such comments are acceptable in any circumstances, unless someone is taking her top off for a living in which case I think it's fair to expect a degree of customer feedback. So yes, BB, as one of your readers says, you are a 'sexist old loon'.

But on a more general note... Like other politicians my job involves putting myself in the public spotlight. People need to know who their MP is, and that's means having name and face recognition. To be honest, I cringe at the thought of putting leaflets through strangers' doors with my pictures on them.... but it has to be done. And that inevitably means people will pass comment on those pictures, (with special thanks to the woman during my 2005 election campaign who said I looked like Sonia from Eastenders). But is that a case of me, or any other politician, or Jan Ormondroyd, 'using their appearance'?

I'd ask the Blogger this: if a man puts himself in the spotlight in order to promote an organisation, or publicise a cause - let's take Richard Branson as an example - would you regard him as using or exploiting his physical appearance? I don't think you would. So why does it apply to women with a high public profile? Or is that only permissible for young and attractive women? Should all middle-aged women only be allowed out in public with bags over their heads?

Seeing as it's inevitably going to come up, yes, I have seen the pictures of Caroline Flint, the Europe Minister, in today's Observer Women, modelling for a fashion shoot. They're nice pictures. Does doing this shoot make it open season for people who want to comment on her looks? I think that horse has already bolted a long time ago, judging from the blogs, but I suppose it makes it more difficult to sustain the 'judge what I say, not what I look like' line. But some - most - female MPs - aspire to nothing more than not looking too scruffy or too knackered (or am I just speaking for myself here?)

I accept it's unrealistic to expect not to be judged on appearance, to an extent. I asked my mother once what she thought of Barbara Castle and she said 'well she was always very smart'. A lot of women voters, including my mother, didn't approve of Shirley Williams because she was always rather dishevelled looking. That's to be expected, it goes with the territory. But there's a big difference between that and assuming that because we have our photos in the paper, fully-clothed, we're inviting public commentary on our breasts. (I say 'public'; I recognise the futility of expecting men not to talk about them at all!)

Saturday 9 May 2009

Spending the afternoon in a slowly revolving door

Expenses... what to say? Starting point is, yes, the revelations of the past few days, or at least the way they have been reported, are grim and hugely damaging to the reputation of parliament and MPs. I don't intend to comment on any individual cases - except to say that I think the way the press and the BBC reported the story about Gordon Brown reimbursing his brother for paying their shared cleaner was appalling and obviously designed to mislead. Apart from that, all I will say is that I think it's up to each MP to justify themselves to their constituents, and the wider British public. But I can understand why people are angry and appalled.

I haven't, by the way, checked through my bundles of past claims yet; in fact I only collected them this week. I suppose I should do that on Monday when I'm back in the office. I did hear Frank Field MP say that he'd got some of Mark Field MP's paperwork in his bundle, and there have been loads of other similar complaints, so being one of many, many 'Mcs' I'm expecting the worse.

I have to say I'm rather bemused to read the weird selection of items being mentioned in the press, many of which are things MPs simply aren't allowed to claim... I suspect we will find, as with the Phil Woolas case, that the Telegraph has got the wrong end of the stick and confused receipts with claims; if someone has, for example, bought a toaster and a microwave and some bedding for their second home in a Tesco superstore, and also bought shampoo and magazines and cigarettes at the same time, then they would make clear on the claim form they were only claiming for certain items but the receipt would show everything. (Although when I've been in such a situation I've always crossed out the items which aren't being claimed for). This must be the case for some of the confectionary and cat food and eyeliner and things like that. I also think the press have been a bit misleading when they've pulled out individual items from receipts and called them 'claims'. Whoever it was who claimed 5pm for an Ikea bag obviously didn't submit a 5pm claim; he'd have bought some stuff from Ikea's market hall and a 5p bag to put it in, and that would have been just one item on the receipt. What was he supposed to have done? Deleted the 5p? Ditto the 26p wooden spoon mentioned on the Telegraph website as being purchased by a Labour female backbencher. (Which incidentally is the only item where there is even the slightest possibility it might be me. I'm not saying it is. I'm just saying I have one, or two, whereas I don't have a patio heater or a wet room or a barbecue. I have no idea if I've ever claimed for one, but if I did it would have been with other items).

As for what you can and can't, or do and don't claim for, it's a tricky judgment call sometimes... I was with my office manager in Staples in Bristol a while ago. Can't remember what we were buying, but it was probably envelopes and possibly a telephone... put it all on my credit card, as usual. Anyway, at the till we spotted a couple of cute funny-shaped magnetic calculators, one bright pink, one purple, and threw them into the basket too. They were only a few quid each but when it came to filling out the claim form for office costs I decided that we hadn't really needed them and had only bought them because they were fun, so I didn't claim for them (although we do actually use them). A trivial anecdote, but one I tell just to illustrate that we're not all engaging in some sort of MPs' edition of Supermarket Sweep.

It's important to note that the claims appearing in the press at the moment relate to the 2004-08 financial years. I'm told by older colleagues that the system used to be far more lax, and far more widely abused, but that was before the Freedom of Information Act and so we will probably never know the details. (And please can we have just a little bit of credit for introducing the FOI? No? Thought as much.) It's also important to note that the system has been tightened up several times over the past year or so, and will no doubt be further tightened after the Kelly inquiry reports. I would also like to say at this point that when I voted against external audit of our allowances last year, I was patently obviously wrong. I thought the Fees Office did a pretty rigorous job in monitoring our claims, but it looks as if an awful lot of questionable claims were allowed to slip through the net. For what it's worth, I've never had any cause to argue with, or challenge the Fees Office. I once claimed for a hotel room in London, because we were voting till very late at night and I had a very early start the next day. I was told by a colleague I could claim, but then it turned out I couldn't, so I said 'fine'. (This was in the days before I got sorted with a flat in London). But that - and the fact they occasionally chased for receipts that I'd actually already sent them - gave me the impression they were being fairly rigorous in their scrutiny.

During the period 2004-08 no receipts were required for household items under £250 per month. I am sure the coming days will reveal that some MPs abused this by claiming just under that amount each month, in the same way that I'm sure some MPs will have abused the 'up to £250 petty cash' each month from the office costs allowance. All I can say is, I didn't, as will I guess become clear in a few days.

Anyway, from April 2008 (I think) the rule has been that receipts have to be shown for all items over £25 and we have now just voted - a couple of weeks ago - that receipts should be required for items below that amount too. Until April 2009 there was a £400 per month food allowance. As new MPs in May 2005 we were advised by the old hands to claim this as a matter of course; it was our entitlement. So I did, although not over the summer or other periods when I didn't have to be in London. I admit to being uncomfortable with this. It is, I suppose, possible to argue that the cost of feeding yourself when away from home is higher, especially given the long hours, and most businesses or organisations will pay employees a subsistence rate when they're working away. But £400 a month? So I gradually started claiming less and less under this heading. Since April 2009 it's been scrapped and we have a flat £25 subsistence allowance for every night spent away from our main home. I've interpreted this fairly strictly, as nights that have to be spent away from my main home in Bristol. If I choose to spend a few extra days in London over the recess, catching up with friends or shopping, that should not of course count. But if I'm there for meetings or to do stuff in the Westminster office, then it should.

By the way, despite what some press reports are saying about Labour MPs having affairs with each other and double-claiming the costs of hotel accommodation at Labour Party Conference and MP away-days , we are not allowed to claim for any costs at all associated with Party Conference, as it's political not parliamentary work. And Labour doesn't have MP away-days (or weekends). The Tories do; we don't. So that story sounds like rubbish to me.

As for second homes, let me start by saying that the system is obviously massively flawed.... I was selected only a few weeks before the May 2005 election. I didn't have a base in Bristol, so just rented the first place I came across (a small, not very nice flat) and didn't have the time or energy to do anything about settling in or making it home. After the election I used the house I co-owned in Luton as my 'Westminster' base, although the travelling back and forth was a killer (getting home gone midnight, having to be back in London first thing the next day) and designated my Bristol flat as 'my second home'. Over the summer recess I moved out of the place in Luton, got myself sorted in Bristol, and also sorted out a London flat - since then I have considered Bristol to be my main home (I've got a nicer flat now, which is small but has a wonderful view of the floating harbour), where I spend most of my time when Parliament isn't sitting. The London flat (equally small and no view at all because it's a ground floor flat on a main road, so I keep the blinds permanently closed) is my designated second home. I can't see that changing in the foreseeable future.

Other dilemmas... furnishing the second home. I believe that MPs should be entitled to an allowance to do so. We don't all inherit our furniture! But I think that the suggestion that has been made, that newly-elected MPs should have a one-off allowance of about £5000, would be better than the current system. At present if an MP has a low mortgage or rent, there's nothing to stop them spending the rest of the £23,000+ Additional Costs Allowance on furnishings (subject of course to the 'John Lewis' list or home improvements).

And this is easy to exploit - although I would say, once again, that I have never done so. I don't think we're under any obligation to tell the Fees Office any details of our second home so there would be nothing to stop an MP with only a one bedroom flat buying two or three beds. I suppose you could then either put the extra bed(s) in your other home, or - if you were being really dodgy - you could just submit receipts for furniture that someone else had bought, or you could buy it and then return it to the store later for a refund. I have no evidence anyone has done this; I'm just saying it's technically possible.

And of course there's the issue of how you choose between the basic or deluxe model. I've always tried to work on the basis of 'would I be buying this if I had to pay for it myself?' Although in the early days I didn't actually realise we could claim for furniture, so when I kitted out my second home in London from Habitat (mostly, apart from a few item from the Purves and Purves sale), I did it on the assumption I'd be paying off the credit card bill for some months to come.

For most MPs, claims for parliamentary allowances are something they do in a rushed moment at the end of the month, and the paperwork is usually something of a muddle. MPs lead fairly chaotic lives - we have two homes, two offices, we work strange hours, we have people making demands on us from all quarters, and we usually are trying to keep at least six or seven balls in the air at any one time.

I can entirely understand how, for example, could have mistakenly claimed for the same bill two months in a row. You see the bill, you can't recall if you claimed or not, and all the past month's paperwork is at a different home or office or you didn't actually get round to taking a copy of it... so you put the claim in and expect the Fees Office to tell you if you've got it wrong. I've usually erred on the other side of caution, or, rather erred on the side of inaction and not got round to claiming for things I could have done, just because the receipts weren't with me when I filled in the claim forms and I just wanted to get it over and done with. I didn't claim for a TV licence in London for several years because I couldn't remember whether the quarterly direct debit payments were for London, or the monthly ones, and frankly life was too hectic to be bothering about such things. (If you're about to erupt at the very thought of an MP claiming for such things, remember, they are still paying for at least one property. I pay council tax, electricity bills, a TV licence, water rates, insurance, etc, etc, for my home in Bristol).

Anyway... that's a probably futile attempt to go with my other futile attempts to explain the system and why we are where we are. It's not intended to justify what you've been reading about over the past few days, and I agree with those who have expressed their anger at MPs sticking to the mantra 'it was within the rules'. It's not good enough.

As I've said, the rules have changed and further change is needed. I don't have the solution. I don't think anyone does at this stage. But if we have to wear hairshirts for a while, or from now onwards, then so be it. Frankly, we - collectively speaking - deserve it. Although I do still draw the line at sharing a dormitory with Ann Widdecombe and Nadine Dorries!

PS If this isn't enough, I have blogged about this issue on here several times before. And I'm not prepared to post or respond to allegations about colleagues, because I simply don't know what is true and what isn't. Some of it might be libellous.

Thursday 7 May 2009

DNA database

An excellent article by Jonathan Myerson on the DNA database, with which I wholeheartedly agree, and a piece in tomorrow's Guardian (or today by the time you read this). The Guardian is concerned that the Home Secretary proposes to keep for 12 years the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted of serious sexual and violent offences - and yet we know that only a tiny proportion of those responsible for rapes and serious sexual assaults are prosecuted and an even smaller proportion go on to be convicted. In other words - there are a lot of 'innocent' rapists out there.

We know that DNA evidence has helped solved a significant number of murder cases, and also, importantly, clear those who have been wrongfully imprisoned, over recent years. It has also helped police identify rapists who would otherwise never be caught and who would go on to commit many more crimes. And this is where I fall out with the liberals on the left and the libertarians on the right. One person's freedom not to have their DNA on the database is another person's freedom to rape without being caught. Or to kill without being brought to justice.

According to the Guardian "The Home Office estimates that even this package will mean 4,500 fewer crimes each year being detected ­compared with the current policy of retaining indefinitely the profiles of all those arrested."

Yes, Shami Chakrabati is right when she says the Government's proposals could mean that 'wholly innocent' people could have their details stockpiled for years. That's the cost of such a plan. But the benefit - protecting other wholly innocent people from being raped or worse, isn't that worth the sacrifice? Are your 'civil liberties' really so precious that you'd be prepared to have these crimes on your conscience?

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Women deliver

Sarah Brown has written an article on maternal health for the Huffington Post (very good US political website). A good piece, and I would say more but got to get down into Chamber soon.

Eric Joyce made a very good contribution on maternal mortality in an adjournment debate on the DRC recently. He'd asked me about it beforehand, said he was worried it might seem a bit 'girlie' (and I can quote him on that because he told me afterwards he'd meant to mention it in his speech but ended up departing from his notes). I told him it wasn't girlie at all and in fact it would be a v. good thing if more male MPs took an interest in the topic. After all, for every mother giving birth, there's a man involved somewhere along the line. (Get the feeling I've said this before - but in a bit of a rush, want to catch the end of Stephen Timms' winding-up speech).

But that conversation and Sarah's article have made me think; maybe it's about time a woman MP made the case for a father's role in the family and bringing up children? I sense another adjournment debate coming on...

What have I done to deserve it?

As if 45 minutes of John Redwood, and then a mercifully truncated 20 minutes from Bill Cash wasn't enough, now Christopher Chope has stood up to speak. Don't know if he's doing one of his filibuster specials, but he's already been told off by Madame Deputy Speaker for going off topic.

Something else I've been pondering on... what's with the current series of overtly political Schweppes adverts? Actually, I've just looked it up - seems that it's a series of bi-weekly intelligent satrical Hogarthian cartoons.

I have some sympathy with Richard who says: "I must be very dim. I don't understand this work at all. Perhaps if the cartoons were funny..?" and then "But what's that got to do with Schweppes?"

Chope is wittering on about his time as leader of Wandsworth Council now... still got wind-ups to come. And then votes. Tea break over, time to do some more work.

Common People

OK, time to get back in the saddle, as David Cameron would no doubt say.

A snippet to start with... something that caught my eye in the Guardian last week. You will remember the story of how an obviously not very bright undercover police officer tried to recruit an environmental activist named Tilly Gifford from the Plane Stupid campaign to act as an informant. (She was called Tilly for God's sake - doesn't that tell you all you need to know about the likelihood of her turning grass?)

Anyway, Ms Tilly has now given her account of her traumatic week, which culminated in the indignity and shame of having to pose for Vogue magazine. "I found myself posing in a fashion studio for Vogue, along with fellow Plane Stupid activists. None of us imagined – or desired – our activities would ever lead us to feature in Vogue, among the plastic-faced models and adverts. I lamely tried to dodge the make-up-wielding "groomer'' with bleatings of allergies."

This 'I found myself' reminds me of when young women say 'I fell pregnant' or even, so I'm told by one of my northern colleagues 'I caught pregnant'. It's quite easy to avoid appearing in Vogue if you object to it that strongly; you just say no. And it's a bit silly to turn up for a photo-shoot with the world's foremost fashion magazine and then make a fuss when they try to put a bit of make-up on you. I wonder if Vogue would have been quite so interested in featuring Tilly if she'd been called Chantelle or Jade or Shanice?

I happened to glance through a copy of Vogue in the hairdressers the other day, which had some surprisingly useful hints for making it through the economic downturn. One suggestion was to raid your mother's vintage Chanel and crop the jacket to give you this season's look. Another was to borrow your boyfriend's silk Prada pyjamas and dress them up with heels. I also remember an article by Nigella Lawson a few years ago, with suggestions for stocking fillers, including a silver lid to put on your Marmite jar for £75 which I think I recall she described as 'a must have' or something along those lines.

Which leads me nicely on to Smythsons, and to ponder just how a £39 'Recessionista' notebook fits into David Cameron's new vision of an 'Age of Austerity'? It's conveniently described as 'portable'. Well at 5.5" x 3.5" it would be, wouldn't it? A bargain and available online now.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Me and Royal Mail

Received notice a few hours ago that Billy Hayes, Gen Sec of the Communication Workers Union, can't make today's meeting with me. Entirely understandable in the circumstances, given that the future of the Royal Mail is yet again leading the news bulletins, but this is the third time it's been cancelled and each time it's been quite difficult getting something in the diary. I suspect it won't happen.