Thursday 30 July 2009

Another Minister writes....

Kickstart Housebuilding Announcement

Following the recent announcement of the Government’s Housing Pledge by the Prime Minister, as part of Building Britain’s Future, and of the funding arrangements that underpin this programme, I wanted to write personally to let you know about the amount of Kickstart funding your area has secured in the first wave of the programme. Today I am announcing a total of £925m funding which is set to go to 270 projects in every region across England to build 22,400 homes and create around 20,000 jobs in the construction industry.

As you know, I have had to make difficult decisions on housing programmes to support the Housing Pledge. In doing so, I was clear about the additional benefits that the Housing Pledge, could bring to local communities by supporting house building and providing new homes for local residents to rent and buy. I am therefore pleased to confirm that as a result of today's announcement every English region will see a significant increase in Government housing investment over the next two years, and of course there is still more to allocate for good value bids from councils, housing associations and a second kickstart round.

Under my announcement today on the first wave of Kickstart funding, the Local Authority area of Bristol is in line for £24,602,000 for four projects which could see the completion of 459 new homes this year and next. These schemes will now be subject to a rapid due diligence process which will ensure that the schemes which receive final approval are deliverable, represent good value for money and will provide good quality homes.

This announcement is about making a real impact rapidly. It is part of the Government's commitment to invest to help Britain through the recession so it's not just about new homes but also new jobs and benefits in the local community.

Yours sincerely


A Minister writes....

From Yvette Cooper, earlier this week.

Dear Kerry,

I am writing to inform you of two important announcements that are being made tomorrow.

The first is the launch of a national campaign to encourage employers all over the country to do everything possible to give every young person help to find a job or training or work skills and experience: Backing Young Britain.

In the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s hundreds of thousands of unemployed young people were abandoned without support. Many communities had a generation lost to worklessness and bore the scars of long-term unemployment for years.

We are determined that this must not happen again and that every young person should get help to find a job or training or work skills and experience.

There are seven ways for businesses, charities and the government to rise to the challenge. We are asking them to back young Britain by committing to at least one of the following:

1. becoming a volunteer mentor for school or university leavers to help them find their feet in the jobs market

2. providing work experience places, volunteering places or a work trial to help young people learn about work, make contacts and fill their CV

3. create a new internship for 18 year olds and non graduates to give them a chance to prove themselves;

4. offering an internship for a graduate

5. providing an apprenticeship for 16-24 year olds

6. bidding for one of the 100,000 jobs for young people in the Government’s Future Jobs Fund

7. joining a Local Employment Partnership to make sure my job vacancies are advertised to local unemployed people.

The aim of this campaign is to get as many employers as possible to commit to taking at least one of the actions to help young people.

For more information, or to Back Young Britain, go to:

Secondly, we are announcing details of the first successful Future Jobs Fund bidders. The £1billion Future Jobs Fund forms a key aspect of the Backing Young Britain campaign, and aims to create 150,000 jobs, aimed primarily at 18 – 24 year olds who have been out of work for a year. The first jobs are expected to be available in October.

Bids for the Future Jobs Fund are still being received and are assessed on a monthly basis. Further announcements will be made throughout the year. We are pleased with the number of successful first bids and the jobs they create. They make a significant contribution to the total number of jobs that we expect the fund to create.

For more information, and to find out who the successful bidders are, go to:

MPs get free chocolate

Cadbury's are to be congratulated on their decision to make Dairy Milk, their biggest selling brand, Fair Trade (although not for their decision to close their Keynsham factory, but that's another issue).

Wanting to be sure MPs didn't miss the announcement, the company has written to all of us individually, enclosing a bar of said chocolate. Unfortunately their timing left something to be desired, with the letters arriving the day after most MPs had left Westminster for the summer. By the time I got to see the letter, the chocolate had already mysteriously vanished. My researcher pleads in her defence the fact I can't eat milk chocolate anyway. I will reluctantly concede that she has a point, but I suspect there will be an awful lot of other researchers who decide to eat the chocolate and hide the letter so they don't get found out.

Actually, this raises another issue, about the recently mooted suggestion - or has it come into effect? I lose track of these things - that MPs should from now onwards have to register all gifts or hospitality, not just those over the £25 mark. Do we all have to declare that we got a free bar of chocolate? Even if the researcher has eaten it?

Show us the Monet!

Final post for tonight. Was listening to Jeremy Vine earlier today, on Radio 2, and there was a piece about how Southampton City Council has finally been forced to reveal it has a £180m art collection, including Turners and Picassos, much of which is languishing in its basement.

A bit of a triumph for the local newspaper editor who was on the show today and said that when the paper first started asking questions the Council officers were 'very defensive' and more of less implied it was none of their business. What's particularly bizarre about this story isn't just that the Council has an archive of valuable artworks from the days in which perhaps a local authority might dabble in such things, but that it recently spent £250,000 on a Bridget Riley painting. Now I'm something of a fan of Bridget Riley's op-art, but I don't think I'd be happy for Bristol City Council to be 'investing' in such pieces.

Public reaction has covered all bases, from people indignant that money which could be spent on public services being tied up in this way, to others who accuse the newspaper editor of being a complete Philistine. So - if you discovered Bristol City Council had 3,700 pieces of artwork worth a cool £180million tucked away somewhere in the depths of the Council House, what do you think they should do? Sell it? Show it? Share it?

Recess not holiday

In case people hadn't realised I am still very much here and working, despite what you may hear about MPs having an 82 day holiday. In fact on Monday I was at an event with three other local MPs - Doug, Roger and Stephen Williams - and on Tuesday I was with Dawn P, and Jim Knight and Liam Byrne - so that makes at least seven of us who aren't on holiday at this precise moment. And Andrew Gwynne who is busy fighting - and winning - by-elections in his constituency. I'm sure there are many more of us.

There are two questionnaires doing the rounds at the moment about MPs' holiday plans, one from the 38 degrees campaign, to which I have yet to respond, and one from the Telegraph which asks in rather brusque fashion a series of questions along the lines of: are you going to party conference this year? are you staying the whole week? (Because if you confess you're only going for a couple of days they will be able to add a couple more days to your 'skiving off' total).

Here's the Telegraph's full set of questions, the results of which were meant to appear in last Sunday's paper but didn't, I suspect because the vast majority of MPs told them where they could shove their survey, and they don't have enough material yet. They are apparently running it this coming weekend, with all MPs listed, including the 'No comments'. Anyway, here it is.

The Daily Telegraph is conducting an investigation into MPs’ plans for the summer recess. As part of this investigation, we would be very grateful if you could answer these short questions about your own plans.

1. Have you made plans to take any overseas vacations during the Parliamentary recess?

2. If so, where will you be travelling to, and for how many days?

3. If you have not yet made plans to take any overseas vacations during the Parliamentary recess, do you consider that it is likely that you will make such plans later in the summer?

4. If so, where do you anticipate travelling to, and for how many days? Please provide a broad estimate (ie “roughly two weeks / somewhere in Europe) if you are unsure.

5. Have you made plans to take any vacations within the British Isles during the Parliamentary recess?

6. If so, where will you be travelling to, and for how many days?

7. If you have not yet made plans to take any vacations within the British Isles during the Parliamentary recess, do you consider that it is likely that you will make such plans later in the summer?

8. If so, where do you anticipate travelling to, and for how many days? Please provide a broad estimate (ie “roughly two weeks / somewhere in Scotland) if you are unsure.

9. How many days or part-days do you anticipate spending in your constituency during the Parliamentary recess?

10. How many days or part-days do you anticipate spending in London or elsewhere on Parliamentary, party or ministerial / shadow ministerial duties during the Parliamentary recess?

11. How many days or part-days do you anticipate spending in London or elsewhere on non-Parliamentary, party or ministerial business during the Parliamentary recess? Please elaborate on your activities. (ie work as a director / spending time in London second home working on book)

12. Will you attend some or all of your party conference? If so, how long will you attend for?

13. Do you consider that your plans this year are broadly similar to those of previous years?

14. If not, what are the reasons for the change?

And here's the email from 38 Degrees:

Dear MP,

Thankyou for representing me in parlement , to help do this effectively i ask the following: Please be transparent about how you're planning to spend your time away from parliament this summer by filling in this survey from 38 Degrees: []

I hope you'll be using the break from parliament to focus on other parts of your job as an MP, taking the chance to spend time in our local area working hard for our local community. I am concerned though that some MPs may use the time to take excessively long holidays and work on extremely well paid second jobs.

Please fill in this survey
to reassure me and other voters that you are working for the people that elected you this summer, and let me know when you have done so. I'll be checking back on the 38 Degrees web site in a few weeks to see what you've said.

I'm asking you to complete the survey because I think we have a right to know what our elected representatives are working on. Please let me know if you disagree and explain your reasons why.

Thank you...

I confess, both these emails made me a little angry. They are predicated on the notion that MPs are lazy, unmotivated, and couldn't care less about their constituencies or - if you insist on being cynical - given where we are in the electoral cycle, getting out and meeting the voters.

I think the Telegraph has a cheek to ask such questions. It's up to my constituents surely to decide whether they think I'm doing a good job and putting in the hours, and seeing as I have a blog and a website and am fairly often in the local media I think they're in a pretty good position to judge whether I am actually working during recess or sunning myself on a beach somewhere from July 22nd to October 12th. And of course people soon realise whether you're turning up to events or not. But -what next? Publishing our time sheets online at the end of every week? Clocking in at the beginning and end of every day? Electronic tagging?

OK, the 38 degrees email was purportedly from a constituent (although I don't think they've confirmed that yet by providing an address), and I will of course be helpful and point them in the direction of where they can keep tabs on me should they wish to do so. Or even meet them if they want to. But I'm not signing up to a website which encourages people to submit photos of their MPs working or not working over the summer. (What is working, anyway - if I go to St Marks Road street party and am pictured with Paul Smith and his son eating icecream, is that work or me having a good time? Answer: it's both. But that's why it's so difficult to quantify how many hours a week an MP works. I've spent the entire evening looking at emails, blogging and on Twitter. Soon I'll be going to bed with a copy of today's Guardian I haven't read yet. So am I working? Skiving? Or something in-between?

I know most MPs were pretty cross about the Telegraph email, but I have a particular reason for regarding it as an intrusion. Those who have read my posts from a month or two ago will know that some people close to me have had/ have serious health problems at the moment. My holiday this year, if you can call it that, will consist of going to Ireland to see one of them, with the timing, length and even the number of my trip(s) dependent on how he responds to treatment and his operation and, to be frank, whether he makes it through the next few months. I told the Telegraph this and said I had no wish for it to be put in the public domain, and they ought to respect my privacy on this (and yes, I know I am blogging about it now, but I am trying to be as opaque as possible whilst still getting across to you what the issue is and why I feel so strongly about it). The response came back, saying we're sorry to hear of your circumstances but we're going to record an entry for every MP so do you want to be a 'No comment' or a 'Dealing with personal family issues' or some variation on that? Well no, I didn't want to be included in their damn survey at all. I want them to leave me alone. In the end I said to put me down as 'I have no holiday plans, but I will be attending Labour conference and visiting family'. I now feel this was an error on my part. But they really have you over a barrel, don't they? "No comment" could easily be interpreted as four weeks in the Caribbean followed by a cruise in the Greek islands on a Russian oligarch's yacht. "Dealing with personal issues" sounds like you're being packed off to the Priory. So you end up co-operating... or at least I did.

What would be great would be if instead of recording people as 'No comment' the Telegraph recorded MPs actual responses - which I suspect would in many cases be along the lines of "Mind your own ******* business!"

I should add that virtually every MP I've spoken to is having a very modest holiday this year, with the most common destinations being Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, France, maybe Tuscany at a push. Some are even going camping or caravanning. So it's not that they've got anything to hide - and none of them have lucrative second jobs either.

So - if you've managed to read this far, what do you think? Are people entitled to have a blow-by-blow account of what their MPs are up to this summer? Are MPs wrong to feel hounded and harrassed on this issue? Is the Telegraph performing a valuable public service, or can we trust constituents to hold their MPs to account? Your thoughts please.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Backing Britain

Has a very interesting day on Tuesday, with two Labour big guns in town, Liam Byrne and Jim Knight, as part of the Building Britain's Future roadshow, (here's the local coverage).

Was great to spend an afternoon talking about the positive things the Government is doing - and there is so much going on, it's frustrating that people don't realise what's being done to ensure we get out of this recession in as good a shape as possible, and that the only way we will be able to deal with the debt (which yes, is high but not as high as in many of our competitor countries) is if we secure future economic growth. We can't cut our way out of recession. It would have a devastasting impact on our competitiveness.

The thing about Jim and Liam and I is that we're all of a roughly similar age - although I confess to a brief moment of 'oh my God I'm really old' when Liam mentioned he was born in 1970. We are the Thatcher generation. (And it's worth noting that Cameron and Osborne and Hague and Gove and the rest are of the same age too, and they chose to become Tories at a time when Thatcherism was at its most brutal).

We might have been lucky enough to be in the small percentage of kids who went to university, but we all know people our age who spent years and years on the dole throughout the 1980s, who thought they would never work. In some it sparked creativity - most of my friends were musicians, and we all hung around the local arts centre, (not a municipal type affair, but an old warehouse which was barely one step up from a squat). But there was a real anger, a real desperation. It wasn't unusual to read stories in the papers about young men committing suicide because they simply couldn't see any reason for living; they felt they had no future. Liam went to what he now describes as a 'not very good' state school in Harlow. I went to a similar school in Luton. Jim Murphy would have seen the same, with his contemporaries in Glasgow. Andy Burnham in Leigh, Sion Simon and Tom Watson in the West Midlands. There are a lot of us now in Parliament.

And it's because of this that the Government is so intent on focusing its efforts on young people in this recession. It's vital that young people don't feel written off, that they retain their hope and optimism and aspirations, and that we do all we can to nurture them - which is why the Backing Young Britain campaign is so important, and it's why Jim and Liam could speak with such genuine passion at the event in Bristol this week.

Sunday 26 July 2009

What is the point of George Osborne?

Friday's Guardian had a big splash on Philip Hammond, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and increasingly Shadow Chancellor in all but name. It's clear that if - note, if - the Conservatives form the next Government George Osborne will have very little to do except keep Cameron company in the No. 10 playpen. A tacit admission by Cameron that his mate just isn't up to the job.

Jeremy Clarkson on cyclists

Nick Griffin speech revisited

It's interesting to see the responses to the 'Elvis' post below. It illustrates a wood-v-trees way of looking at things. Psychologists have done experiments in the past - for example, if you show a bunch of people the YBA Sensation exhibition portrait of Myra Hindley, and ask them what they see, some will say 'it's Myra Hindley' and others will say 'it's lots of little handprints'. (Perhaps not the best example, but the only one I can think of at the moment.)

So some, perhaps more literal-minded, folks have honed in on what they see as the main point of Nick Griffin's speech, i.e. that we should not go to war with Iran, which I am sure is a view most people can endorse. But others are seeing the handprints: the swivel-eyed ranting, the overblown rhetoric (he's obviously been studying Galloway), the paranoid vision of MEPs employing their private militias, the portrayal of himself and his fascist colleagues as 'nationalist dissidents' being hunted down by 'far-left criminals'. That's what I meant when I say he's even madder than I thought.

Top Gear Tories - but what if he'd said yes?

In my fit of outrage at the Tories' hypocrisy vis-a-vis Lord Sugar, I completely overlooked the most ridiculous and hypocritical element of their bid to recruit Jeremy Clarkson as a transport adviser. What does Jeremy Clarkson do? Answer - drive very expensive cars, very fast. And hates anyone who tries to stop him. What kind of message does that send out about future Tory transport policy? Let's have some fun - what would the Tory transport manifesto look like if Clarkson had actually said yes?

Revealed - Tories quite nice after all

Also on the subject of the Tories, the Guardian has an online piece about Marjorie Ellis Thompson, a former CND Chair and a former head of Comms at the Commission for Racial Equality joining the Tory party. Leaving aside the question as to how anyone committed to unilateral disarmament could square that with joining the Tories (and yes, I know Labour ditched unilateralism too, more than two decades ago actually, but that doesn't make the Tories the answer for a unilateralist, does it?

Also leaving aside the question of how anyone with a commitment to equalities could be comfortable in a Tory party which has consistently opposed equalities legislation, including Labour's new Equalities Bill, and a leader with a very poor voting record on these issues (look at the votes, not the spin)... Not to mention her desire to see General Pinochet arrested; let's hope she doesn't bump into Pinochet-medal wearing Norman Lamont, currently advising the Tories on economic policy, anytime soon. Or Thatcher for that matter.

What's interesting to me, more interesting than the fact that a former CND Chair has done a Melanie,* is the fact that this piece has appeared in the press, and in the Guardian of all places. Was Ms Ellis Thompson suddenly filled with evangelical zeal and a desire to convert those lefty Guardian readers to the cause of righteousness, all of her own accord and without any prompting? I very much doubt it...

It seems painfully transparent to me that this effort has been cobbled together by Coulson or one of his team, in a bid to convince wavering lefties that the Conservatives are quite cuddly really, once you get to know them. "Unlike the New Labour high command, my background in the CND is something my local party welcomes"... "The party is small, only 47 members, but it is extremely diverse in gender, ethnicity and sexuality".... "I was also extremely impressed when, addressing a group of British American Project alumni, Cameron made a veiled critique of the so-called special relationship and said: "You can be a friend, but a critical friend."

And then this, the coup de grace: "At one local meeting in autumn 2007, the arts administrator said she didn't think the post office should be privatised, she supported the NHS and she felt that the privatisation of the rail services (admittedly not New Labour's fault) had been a disaster. I agreed with all these points and told her she had spelled out exactly why I felt at home in the local party."

The message is clear - if you think New Labour is too right wing, there's a place for you in Camberwell and Peckham Tories, who will be fighting the next election on a platform of unilateralism, renationalising the railways, a publicly-owned Royal Mail, increased investment in the NHS and support for minorities whatever their creed, colour or sexual orientation.

*'Doing a Melanie', named in honour of Melanie Phillips, i.e. becoming progressively more right-wing and more mad as you get older, although progressive is almost certainly the wrong word. The opposite of 'doing a Tony'.

Top Gear Tories

Thanks to John Prescott for tweeting this timely reminder of Tory hypocrisy.

So it's not OK for the Government to offer Alan Sugar a job, but it was OK for the Tories to offer Jeremy Clarkson one because, er, "because he said no?" And, I think I've got this right, it would damage the BBC's impartiality to have one of their celeb signings acting as an adviser to the Government, but, er, not for another one of the celebs to act as an adviser to the Opposition?

Henry and Harry

I was talking to someone only a few days ago about whether Henry Allingham should be given a state funeral. The consensus was yes, it would be a great tribute, but we wondered whether that would be seen as something of a snub to Harry Patch, the only remaining living veteran of World War One? Sadly, events have overtaken us and Harry has died in the same week as Henry. I hope we do something special to commemorate them, and the contribution they both made. I don't know whether that should be a state funeral - and I guess that in no small part depends on what the respective families' wishes are - or a memorial service, or even a monument to the two men, but like I said, I hope it's special. They deserve it.

My own grandfather served in the navy as a very young man at the end of the Second World War. He told me once how every ship in his fleet was destroyed apart from the one he was on, somewhere out in the Atlantic. It's hard to imagine my 17 year old nephew in that situation (and my grandfather was only five feet tall too!). My grandfather is now in his eighties. It's strange to think that by the time he did his National Service, Harry and Henry were already middle-aged.

Are you ready to be seduced by David Cameron?

And as if that (previous post) wasn't disturbing enough, women of Bristol beware - David Cameron has you in his sights!

Does anyone have Elvis Costello's phone number?

What follows is Nick Griffin's first contribution to a debate in the European Parliament as an MEP, in Strasbourg on 15th July. Obviously we all knew he was bad, but I didn't realise he was quite this mad too.

Nick Griffin (NI ). - Mr President, last year I served as a monitor at commemorations for the 1956 revolution in Budapest. I can confirm that Dr Morvai is right to criticise those who fret about Iran while ignoring human rights abuses here in Europe.

I trust that no ECR Group members here will be hypocritical enough to condemn Iran for the use of violence in elections when David Cameron is among the sponsors of Unite Against Fascism, an organisation of far-left criminals which routinely deploys intimidation and violence against nationalist dissidents in Britain. The same is true of five current Labour, Lib Dem and Tory MEPs, marked with the shame of supporting the use of British taxpayers’ money to support their own militia, which breaks up opposition meetings and attacks their opponents with bricks, darts and claw hammers.

But my main point is this: however well meaning, and even justified, criticisms of Iran made here may be, they will be exploited as war propaganda by the powerful vested interests that stand to gain from a military attack on that country. Neocons, oil companies, construction corporations and the Wahabi mullahs of Saudi Arabia all want to see the sovereign state of Iran destroyed by an aggressive war. Not even European liberals are naive enough to fall for lies about weapons of mass destruction again, so human rights are being drafted in as a new casus belli .

Do not add the voice of this place to the warmongers’ chorus for a third illegal and counterproductive attack by the West on the Muslim world. Or, if you must, do not leave the war – which hypocritical rhetoric will help to justify and unleash – to the usual brave British cannon fodder: 18-year-old boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne. Instead, send your own sons to come home in boxes or without their legs, their arms and their sanity – or mind your own business.

Friday 24 July 2009

How to pet a shark

Seeing as I've put in on Twitter I may as well post it here. I don't suppose you're really meant to do this with sharks either - though better than putting them in soup - and I've had twinges of conscience ever since, though these ones were used to public attention. It was taken at Shark Ray Alley in Belize several years ago, in 2004 I think.

I also went diving on the same trip with about 8 or 9 nurse sharks, maybe 8-10 footers. The dive master had a can of guts and entrails (chub I think it's called) and was letting it stream out behind us so that the sharks followed. It was a stunning experience, and one of the reasons I'm so keen on shark conservation now.

Horrible soups

Two tweets arrived in rapid succession: "Why sharks belong in the sea and not in soup" from those End of the Line folks (film being shown at the Watershed in August) and this truly horrible picture from National Geographic. Have to admit I don't even know what a pangolin is (a scaly anteater, says National Geographic). I don't suppose it's the most attractive creature, but still, who on earth would want to spoon up a mouthful of foetus?

Musings on Norwich North (irrelevant musings)

Quote from the victorious Tory candidate in Norwich North "This isn't about me jumping off here and then going and living up on expenses for the three summer months." I don't think she'd be in a position to do so anyway. I think I'm right in saying she won't get on the payroll for wages or allowances until she's sworn in when Parliament returns on October 12th, so she could be in a difficult position re setting up an office and employing staff but I expect someone at Conservative Central Office, where she'd be working on secondment, will keep her head above water till then.

I'm also not sure she's even allowed to call herself the Member of Parliament till she has taken the oath - although the Sinn Fein MPs have never done so. And actually, they can claim allowances and I assume they get paid. So maybe I'm wrong on all the above!

Arson attack on the Somali Voice

Very depressing news about the torching of the Somali Voice office in Easton, and some fundamentally depressing comments on the BEP site too - and I suspect they've deleted some of the worst. Kayse, the editor of Somali Voice, is someone I know well and like very much. He has put in a huge amount of effort over the years to the paper and the website, as well as holding down a full-time job in the NHS, and it's so sad to see this all go up in smoke. I hope he can pull together the resources to keep going.

The bulk of the comments are along the lines of accusing Kayse of 'playing the race card', and saying there's no evidence it's a racist attack. Well it's actually the police who have suggested it might be, and it's common sense to suspect that would be a distinct possibility. It could be kids messing around as arson attacks often are; it could be an individual with a particular grievance; it could be white racists....We simply don't know yet. There have been tensions between Jamaicans and young Somalis in the area - in which case does that make it racist, or is it more about which gang you belong to, which happen to be delineated along racial lines? Or even just about turf wars, over drug dealing territory?

The Somali Voice is of course nothing to do with this, and I've had many a conversation with Kayse and other Somali community activists about what can be done to prevent disaffected Somali youths being drawn into that kind of street culture. (As I have done with people from the wider Muslim community, and in schools too with kids from all backgrounds).

As a footnote to the person who asks why there are so many Somalis in Bristol, as it was never part of the British Empire. Somaliland was a British colony. (Somalia was Italian). Many Somalis fought in the British army, and are very proud of their British links.

Spot the trend

Just been Tweeting with Councillor Sean Beynon re Bristol City Council's new recycling advice scheme. The wards chosen for this pilot are as follows: Henleaze, Horfield, St George, Eastville, Bishopston, Ashley, Frome Vale and Lockleaze. Now I wonder why these wards were chosen? Do we have statistics to show that they would benefit most from such an exercise being carried out in their midst? Jon, can you enlighten us?

(Frome Vale is of course the red herring designed to throw people off the scent - if a herring can perform such a task!)

"An element of cruelty and exploitation"

Interesting to see the difference between the way the Guardian reports a recent court case involving the Jeremy Kyle show, and the way the Mail reports it. I'm with the Mail all the way on this one.

Thursday 23 July 2009

There are some things we don't need to know about

I think I've blogged on this issue before, but if not I've certainly intended to do so... There's a report in a daily paper today about a man who seems to have accidentally hanged himself during one of those infamous 'sex games gone wrong'. I just really think it's wrong to report such stories. (I'm not going to link to the story because that would just make it worse).

OK, the man was a headteacher, at a school for pupils with special needs, but there is no suggestion at all that his extra-curricular activities had any connection with his work, or could in any way be deemed to be a matter of 'public interest'. What people forget, it seems, is that he leaves behind a widow, six children and seven grandchildren. Is it not bad enough that they've lost their husband/ father/ grandfather and in such dreadful circumstances, without having to see it splashed across the papers in such salacious detail?

Electrification gets the go ahead

According to the BBC - and who are we to doubt them? - the Government is going to announce the electrification of the Great Western line later today. Those who hang on to my every word in Parliament and on this blog - and if not, why not? - will know I've been calling for this for some time. Last time I asked Geoff Hoon about this in the Chamber, I thought he'd been distinctly encouraging, but it's good to have confirmation. The only downside is that it will take eight years in total, but still at least it's been given the green light. Or should that be the green signal?

Today's announcement will tie in nicely with the Cabinet taking the FGW service to Cardiff for one of its regular away-days today. I just hope it gets them there on time! I have to say, I think the service has been better this year, although there was certainly plenty of room for improvement.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Public service announcement

BTW, I am once again mobile phone-less this week. So if anyone has left me any messages since Sunday, I won't have picked them up. This situation may last till Monday.

Will the last whip to leave the building please switch off the lights....

We are now on the end of term adjournment debate where MPs can raise any subject they like. (Harry Cohen is talking about Ronnie Biggs, as I write). Unlike the pre-Easter debate which finished early there's no shortage of speakers tonight, and a seven minute limit on speeches. But we've finished voting and the vast majority of MPs have departed Westminster for the summer.

So spare a thought for those of us who are not yet free to leave. And a special thought please for the 'last whip on the bench'. There's a whips rota for 'bench duty' in the Chamber, and it falls upon me to occupy the very last slot today, from 10pm to 11pm. A less trusting soul than I might suspect a stitch up, with someone in the Whips' office working backwards from the last day of term, just to make sure they didn't get the graveyard slot.

Earlier I was approached by the whip who's doing the 9pm to 10pm slot. Foolishly, for a moment I thought she was offering to swap. But no, she was suggesting that 'seeing as you've got to be here anyway' I might want to do her slot as well as mine. So I'm here for the duration...

EU protection for chicken tikka masala?

The following EDM has been tabled by my colleague, Mohammad Sarwar. I think it falls into the category of things that you know perfectly well you're not going to achieve, but you're going to have some fun in the meantime.

That this House records its appreciation of the culinary masterpiece that is chicken tikka masala; notes that it is Britain's most popular curry; recognises that it was invented in the great City of Glasgow by Ali Ahmed Aslam, proprietor of the Shish Mahal restaurant in Glasgow's West End in the seventies; further notes that Glasgow is three times winner of the curry capital of Britain award; and supports the campaign for Glasgow to be given EU Protected Designation of Origin of this most popular dish.

Saturday 18 July 2009

Is global warming the fault of the rich?

Interesting blog post by TonyDGreens, or at least that's the name by which he's known on Twitter - a local Green Party activist, I believe. I met him at the Vegan Fayre (although I don't think he is one).

An analysis has been done of carbon emissions by postcode in the UK. Bristol - or to be more accurate the Bristol postcode area which stretches some way outside the city's boundaries - have 12 in the top 1000, and 12 in the bottom 1000.

Here's the list (with credit to Tony for directly lifting this from his blog).

The 12 BS postcodes with the highest carbon emissions per household are:

1) BS9 1 Stoke Bishop, Sneyd Park at 28.88 tonnes of carbon per year
2) BS8 3 Clifton, Abbots Leigh, Failand at 28.59
3) BS40 8 Winford, Chew Magna at 28.25
4) BS48 3 Backwell, Barrow Gurney at 27.94
5) BS32 4 Almondsbury, Tockington at 27.65
6) BS48 4 Nailsea, Brockley, Backwell at 27.57
7) BS6 7 Westbury, Redland at 27.5
8) BS9 3 Westbury-on-Trym at 27.45
9) BS28 4 Wedmore, Blackford, Theale at 27.21
10) BS40 5 Wrington, Langford, Redhill at 27.1
11) BS20 8 Portishead, Weston-in-Gordano at 26.68
12) BS31 3 Saltford at 26.28

Whilst the 12 BS postcodes with the lowest carbon emissions per household are:

1) BS2 0 St Philips, St Philip's Marsh at 15.63
2) BS13 0 Hartcliffe at 16.01
3) BS5 0 Easton, Lawrence Hill at 16.63
4) BS13 9 Withywood at 16.81
5) BS5 9 Redfield, Barton Hill at 17
6) BS23 1 Beach Road, Weston super Mare at 17.06
7) BS11 0 Shirehampton, Lawrence Weston at 17.08
8) BS4 1 Knowle at 17.2
9) BS23 3 Locking Road, Weston super Mare at 17.73
10) BS2 8 Kingsdown, St Pauls, St James at 17.87
11) BS13 8 Bishopsworth at 18.3
12) BS10 5 Westbury-on-Trym, Southmead at 18.41

For those unfamiliar with the Bristol area, those in the top 12 are, I think without exception, either in the rural areas outside the city or in the very wealthiest parts of Bristol. Those in the bottom 12 are generally inner-city or estates with high levels of social and economic deprivation. (I don't know about the places in Weston). Numbers 1, 3 and 5 in the bottom 12 are in my constituency, whilst numbers 2, 4 and 8 are in Dawn Primarolo's constituency of Bristol South.

As Tony says, and I hope he'll forgive me for the direct lift:
"The obvious, and depressing conclusion looking at the two lists is that, in general, people's effect upon the environment has much more to do with their level of disposable income than with any conscious effort to behave in a more environmentally aware manner - a conclusion that has been apparent to most of us in the environmental movement for some time. Simply put, and allowing for some rare exceptions, the richer people are, the more they pollute."

It would be interesting to see a breakdown of this. How much is down to flying, and car ownership, and how much is down to greater consumption of consumer goods and higher fuel bills because they've got bigger homes? And does this signal that personal carbon trading schemes, as once floated by David Miliband and still I think 'being explored' by Government, might be a good tool for not just tackling emissions but tackling poverty too?

Sarah the stealth missile

Media commentators are suddenly falling over themselves to analyse what Sarah Brown is up to, with her increased public profile, her campaign work for the White Ribbon Alliance ( and of course her Twittering about issues such as refusing to eat veal at the G8, having fun at Gay Pride and watching The End of the Line.

Some are talking of a rebranding exercise, others are suggesting that she's being used by No. 10 as 'a stealth missile', others that she is positioning herself for life after No. 10, and a job in the charity sector.

I suspect the truth may be rather less complex than the number of column inches suggest. Firstly she's probably just got more used to being the Prime Minister's wife with all that goes with it, and feels more comfortable striking out on her own. But also - she's got two boys, one aged 5 and one who's just turned 3. She's simply doing what many mothers do as their kids get a little bit older, i.e. getting her life back!

From Bristol to Bath and back again

Bristol City Council is consulting on plans for the Greater Bristol Bus Network along the A4 Bath Road. Let's hope they do a better job than last time, when they consulted on the A420 Showcase Bus Route. The consultation took place over a relatively short period in the summer, when many people were away. The drop-in shop in Church Road where local residents could supposedly go to learn more about the plans was staffed by people who knew nothing about the proposals, couldn't answer any questions and did little other than hand out maps of the proposed route. After meeting with local residents and local shopkeepers I lobbied the Council to get the consultation period extended, and for an actual dialogue with those who had concerns, e.g. council officials actually getting out and talking to the shopkeepers about the impact the bus lane and new parking restrictions would have on passing trade.

So has anything been learnt from the experience last time? The signs aren't good. What's billed as an 'informal consultation' is already running, from 4 July to 14th August, a period when many people are away. There's a drop-in shop, which is open three days a week over a short period. I hope we aren't in one of those scenarios when very few people know about the consultation, the plans are published, no-one likes them - and the council responds by saying 'well you were consulted'. It's only a genuine consultation if (a) everyone knows it's taking place, (b) there's a two-way dialogue, with as much information as possible being given to those who are interested in the consultation and someone who can answer their questions as and when they arise, and (c) people are given sufficient time to check out the plans and to respond, including organising their own informal consultations within their community. In the latter case I'm thinking of local residents' groups, neighbourhood partnerships, shopkeepers, businesses on the industrial parks, schools (not just the school run, but there's quite an issue in transporting pupils from schools to other premises to use facilities there, and the time it takes). I simply don't think this can be done in the time available, but I think it's essential that such groups pool information with each other and hammer out their collective response. It will give their submissions much more clout.

So I have some questions for the Council: Who decided that this was a suitable time to have the consultation, and why? What efforts have been made to let local residents and road users know about the consultation? A leaflet drop to local residents would not suffice; it's a major road from Bristol to Bath, many of the road users aren't local. Has, for example, information been distributed to motorists using the A4 Park and Ride? What happens after the informal consultation closes? Will the submissions be made public, at least in summary form? What feedback will those making submissions get, and will the Council facilitate opportunities for the concerns and objections to be discussed, for example in public meetings?

Apart from the fact that it's my job to ask such questions, as the A4 runs through my constituency, I'm also asking these questions now because I think it's absolutely crucial we get this right. The A4 is a dreadful transport corridor at the moment. The traffic is always heavy, and often unpredictable; what should be a ten minute journey can sometimes take three-quarters of an hour, not just at peak times but at random points throughout the day. It affects shops, businesses, people's jobs and lives. The GBBN is being supported by a considerable amount of Government money - £43 million or so across the city - which we've lobbied hard for over the year. It's too good an opportunity to squander.

Ibrahim conviction

Just a quick comment on the Isa Ibrahim conviction on terrorism charges. Good to see the media recognising the role of the local Muslim community in bringing him to police attention. Although he lived in Westbury-on-Trym, as befits a public schoolboy, Ibrahim started attending a mosque in my constituency shortly before his arrest. I'm told he was encouraged to attend there by a relative, who was concerned about his increasingly radical views and hoped the mosque would act as a moderating influence. The mosque elders were also concerned, and when he appeared at the mosque with burns on his hands, saying he'd been playing with chemicals, they shopped him. This is the first conviction on terrorism offences in the UK as a result of intelligence provided by British Muslims, and serves as further proof that the extremists are very much in the minority.

Friday 17 July 2009

Vatican broadside

At some point soon, when the Pope recovers from his recent fall, he is due to come on a state visit to the UK.

I've been exchanging emails with a constituent who's not at all happy about this, given the Pontiff's stance on contraception, abortion and the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission, and in particular its impact on countries in the developing world. He does not think the UK government should be supporting such a man, nor the UK tapayer stumping up for the cost of such a visit. (I checked it out, and yes, we do pay the costs when a Head of State visits us, and vice versa when the Queen goes abroad).

I can see his point (the constituent's, that is). I think the Pope's views on these issues are wrong, even dangerous. But I don't think that means we should stop the State visit. (Actually my constituent has been arguing that he doesn't have a problem with the Pope's visit, but simply doesn't think we should be paying for it. But I don't think you can have a Head of State visiting this country without giving him the Head of State treatment). My constituent thought I was chickening out, not daring to criticise the Government's take on this, putting career before principle. But that was unfair. Even though I agreed with his analysis of the rights and wrongs of the Pope's views (OK, the wrongs) I simply didn't agree with him about the State visit, for the following reasons:
  • I think the Pope's stance on these issues, as propogated by Catholic relief agencies across the developing world, has undoubtedly had a negative impact on HIV/AIDS prevention and maternal health. But he's not alone. The Bush administration for example, only wanted to fund HIV programmes that promoted abstinence. (I've blogged about this before; one of Obama's first acts as President was to reverse this, which was excellent news).

  • We've hosted State visits for a range of leaders whose views in some areas do not chime with our own. The Chinese leader, for example. But rather than just blanking them, isn't it better to get them over here and put them in the spotlight? OK, the Pope's unlikely to turn up on Newsnight to be grilled by Paxman about his views on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, but his visit will inevitably trigger public debate on such issues, with the Catholic church called to account. Peter Tatchell is, I'm sure, already dusting off his slogan T-shirts and placards, and will no doubt be arrested - or try to be arrested - before the visit is out.

  • Whether or not we like his views, there are rather a lot of Catholics in this country, many of whom will share the Pope's views. For them, the Pope's visit is an important moment, a major event. My constituent would no doubt argue that there are neo-Nazis in this country, and that doesn't mean we would roll out the red carpet for Hitler. But Catholics are part of the mainstream. Our last Prime Minister is now a Catholic. The last Speaker was a Catholic. Is the Pope really so extreme an example of the Catholic faith that we should treat him as a pariah? Don't I have a duty to my Catholic constituents to allow them the opportunity to participate in a papal visit? I can recall the last Pope's visit and the ecstatic welcome he received, although that was the cuddly Pope in his Popemobile who was portrayed on Spitting Image as a rap-loving hipster and who I think everyone quite like really.

So - am I right? Or wrong? You tell me.

Rattled by the rush

As a postscript to the Mail's take on the extradition debate, you will note that the MPs singled out for their vitriol were those who had at some point signed EDMs expressing concern about the extradition arrangements between the UK and USA. Some specifically in relation to the Gary McKinnon case, others - including me - in completely different circumstances which were (wilfully?) misrepresented by the Mail.

Obviously a significant number of Labour MPs who didn't sign any of these EDMs voted along with us, against the Tory motion. (Sorry, make that the opportunistic, hypocritical, shameless Tory motion. That's better.)

So basically those backbenchers who have never expressed any concern at all about the issue, for whatever reason, have completely escaped the Mail's censure. Isn't the lesson to be learnt from this by new MPs: don't express any opinions, don't speak up, don't sign EDMs, don't nail your colours to the mast, don't raise your head above the parapet? Otherwise whatever you say may be taken in evidence and used against you.

And before people steam in with charges of hypocrisy against those of us who did sign an EDM or EDMs, and then voted 'the other way' - no, none of us did. You have to look at the wording of the motions, and the purposes of an Opposition day debate; even if the Government had lost the vote on Wednesday, and was therefore politically if not constitutionally bound to review the Extradition Act, it would not have affected the current proceedings against McKinnon. You can't renegotiate a treaty overnight. Wednesday's debate was about one thing, and one thing only: the Tories jumping on the Daily Mail bandwagon in order to score a few political points. I think the Lib Dems position on this is more honest - naive, perhaps, but honest - but the Tories are just shameless. They took far more of an interest in the extradition of their banker friends, the NatWest 3, than they did in the McKinnon case, until the Mail got involved.

Thursday 16 July 2009

Debate on Afghanistan this afternoon

There's a debate on Afghanistan starting around 2pm-ish. I bumped into Roberta Blackman-Woods MP earlier, chair of the All-Party Group on Afghanistan. She's been to Afghanistan before, but this week was out there with Sir Richard Dannatt and his team. She'll be speaking in the debate but the defence whip tells me there are twenty or so speakers, and the big guns are out on the front benches - David Miliband opening, Bob Ainsworth closing for the Government, and William Hague and Liam Fox for the Tories, so backbench speeches are going to be tight for time. At the moment it's being advertised on the annunicator as an 8 minute limit on backbench speeches but what usually happens is that gets squeezed by long front-bench contributions and lots of interventions. I hope Roberta gets called early, and isn't one of those who gets cut down to a few minutes just before wind-ups start.

Will you be having a Big Lunch this Sunday?

There are Big Lunches taking place across the country this coming Sunday - have a look at for more details. Basically the idea is to get people together for a picnic, a street party, a lunch - so they can get to know each other, have a good time and eat some good food too! Anyone can turn up, armed with a contribution to the lunch, with the emphasis being on locally grown and produced food and drink. Bring the kids, bring some food, bring some musical instruments - and pray for sunshine!

PS Have amended this post because I've now found out the event planned for Paintworks in Bristol has been pulled, for financial reasons, which is a shame.

And yet another PS - but I've now found out that there will be a Big Lunch event in Bristol at the Tobacco Factory, so you can all pile down there instead.

MPs to be banned from schools?

As a supplementary to today's Indy story about authors visiting schools, these new rules will also apply to politicians, I'm told. From September any MP visiting a school in his or her constituency will need a CRB check. No problem with that, you might think, but to get a check carried out you need a sponsoring organisation, which would usually be your employer. I've just bumped into a Labour MP who tells me that the House of Commons authorities are refusing to act as sponsor. This resurrects the whole problem of who exactly is your employer as an MP? The House of Commons authorities? The people who voted for you? The Prime Minister/ leader of your party?

Try renting a flat as an MP and being asked for an employer's reference, which was the situation I was in when I was first elected. I can't remember how I resolved that condundrum in the end. I certainly didn't manage to persuade Tony Blair to write one!

I've already had a CRB check, which was required when I went out to India with two fifteen year olds from a Bristol school. The trip and the CRB check was arranged by WorldVision as part of the Global Campaign for Education. Not sure if it's still in force though, as it was spring 2008. The MP tells me he's on the case, but we need to get it sorted before September, which is always the best time for MPs to visit schools as they're back and we're back at work but not in Parliament. (This will of course be disputed by those who are convinced we're all about to disappear on a 12 week cruise around the Caribbean.)

OK - yet another postscript. I now have it on very good authority that MPs will not be required to have CRB or ISA clearance before visiting schools. Nor will authors unless they are regular visitors. This statement is now on the DCSF website:

16 July 2009
In response to various stories about authors having to be vetted before being allowed to go into schools to read to children, the DCSF has issued the following statement: “These checks have been misunderstood. Authors, MPs or anyone else will not have to register with the Vetting and Barring Scheme if they work with children once or infrequently. People working in schools will only be required to register if they work with children on a regular basis. “These rules do not apply to visitors to a school, but only to people working in schools on a regular basis. The rules apply even if the person working is supervised by a teacher at all times, as they are being placed in a unique position of trust where they can easily become deeply liked and trusted by pupils. We therefore need to be sure that this trust is well placed, in case pupils bump into them out of school where a teacher is not present. “While we fully accept that the vast majority of workers or volunteers would never abuse their position of trust, parents would not want adults working regularly with young children, even on a voluntary basis, without any sort of background check at all. That would be irresponsible. This applies as much to famous authors as it does to cleaners, admin staff or fire-fighters giving safety talks. We are very grateful to authors who give up their time to read to children, young people really benefit from it.”

So, it seems that MPs won't need checks on the basis that there is no danger of them becoming 'deeply liked and trusted' by the pupils!

Brief encounter

On a lighter note, news of the latest showing at the Watershed (arty cinema in Bristol for those who aren't local).

Today's debate on extradition

I was about to go to bed but I made the mistake of idly skimming through online editions of tomorrow's papers and discovered that for no obvious reason I've been given star billing in the Mail's reporting of today's debate on the UK-US extradition treaty. (A bizarre feeling, scrolling down a story and thinking 'that looks like the top of my head?' and then deciding it's not you, and then realising that it is).

True, I signed an EDM on the issue in 2005, but that was in relation to an entirely different case, regarding a constituent of Sadiq Khan's, Babar Ahmed. (People may recall the revelations last year that Sadiq was bugged whilst visiting his constituent in prison). At one point around this time I met with a Home Office Minister to discuss it, in fact, which mostly revolved around the technicalities of the difference between the UK and USA legal systems. There wasn't reciprocity at that stage, hence many MPs' concern - but the treaty was subsequently ratified by the Senate. So it was a different issue then.

Since then the issue of extradition has come up again in relation to the Nat West Three, and now regarding Gary McKinnon. I certainly didn't have a problem with the Nat West Three being extradited to the USA and despite their protestations they did of course plead guilty when they eventually got there. (Their defenders would say it was a plea bargain, rather than an admission of guilt, as Chris Grayling did in the Commons today but the fact is, they pleaded guilty and received jail sentences).

I've not been involved in the McKinnon case other than writing to the Home Secretary on behalf of a couple of constituents who had contacted me, and of course it's sub-judice so it would be wrong to discuss the details here. I didn't sign the latest EDM, which I believe specifically related to the McKinnon case - I haven't signed any EDMs for 18 months or so, shortly after I became PPS to Douglas Alexander. So I'm rather intrigued as to why the Mail editorial team decided to thrust me into the spotlight. I'd submit in my defence that there's a difference between expressing concerns in 2005 when the 2003 Act had only recently come into force and believing the extradition arrangements require urgent review now. I acknowledge the concerns about Mr McKinnon's well-being and fitness to stand trial, but we get into difficult territory indeed if we ask Parliament to be the judge of that (as colleagues such as Kelvin Hopkins, John Austin and Diane Abbott, for example, who are hardly slow to vote against the Government line, obviously agreed).

For those who are interested, here's the entire transcript of the debate in Parliament today (i.e. Wednesday).

This is the Opposition motion which I voted against, apart from anything else because I saw it as pure opportunism on the Tories' part, jumping on the Daily Mail's bandwagon. Until earlier this week they had put in for an Opposition Day debate on NHS dentistry, and then only switched to this topic as the Mail campaign took off. In fact a quick search of theyworkforyou shows that apart from Mr McKinnon's constituency MP, David Burrowes, no Tory spokesperson had raised the issue in the House. Anyway, this was their motion:

"That this House expresses its very great concern that the Extradition Act 2003 is being undermined by a series of high profile cases that are jeopardising confidence in the extradition system; and calls on the Government to hold immediately a review of the Act with a view to reforming it at the earliest opportunity to deal with the issues of public concern."

And here's the Government amendment which I would have supported had it been pushed to the vote:

“This House notes that it is beneficial to the public to be able to extradite people accused of crimes in another country who might otherwise escape justice and that extradition treaties such as the US-UK Extradition Treaty 2003 work to the significant benefit of both countries; notes that the UK must demonstrate ‘probable cause’ to the US courts while the US must demonstrate ‘reasonable suspicion’ to the UK courts; notes that these tests are broadly equivalent given the differences between the legal systems in the two jurisdictions; recognises the view that ascertaining whether prosecution ought to take place in the UK should be considered by relevant prosecutors at the beginning of the process and not by judges at extradition hearings, which could result in serious criminals evading justice; and further notes that since 2004, people have been convicted on murder, manslaughter and smuggling charges in the UK following extradition from the US, whilst those charged with murder and terrorism offences have been extradited to the USA.”

Also, as a postscript, here's what I gather is the legal position on the alleged difference between 'probable cause' and 'reasonable suspicion', i.e. the US and UK requirements.

'The information that must be provided in order for a UK extradition request to proceed in the US is in practice the same as for a US request to proceed in the UK. On the one hand, the UK is required to demonstrate “probable cause” in the US courts. In American law this is described as “facts and circumstances which are sufficient to warrant a prudent person to believe a suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime”

The US is required to demonstrate “reasonable suspicion” in UK courts. This has been defined in UK case law in the following terms, “circumstances of the case should be such that a reasonable man acting without passion or prejudice would fairly have suspected the person of having committed the offence”.

Every extradition request made by the US to the UK must provide sufficient information that would persuade the District Judge in the UK to issue an arrest warrant if the conduct for which extradition is sought had occurred in this country. (Section 71 of the Extradition Act 2003)'

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Whips have their photo taken

I was informed today by the estimable Deputy Chief Whip, Tommy McAvoy, that he is an avid reader of my blog. He also claims to have access to Twitter. I regard this of course as a great honour. I feel more than a little unworthy to be consuming even a smidgeon of the attention of such a great man, with so many other important things to occupy his time. (And if you're his researcher, who I suspect is the person who really reads it - I am prepared to offer bribes).

Until the last reshuffle but one, when he was promoted to Deputy, Tommy was the only Government Minister to have occupied the same post since the 1997 election. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were of course runners-up, with ten years apiece in the same posts, and I think Lord Sainsbury lasted almost as long as that as Science Minister.

This morning we had the official annual Whips photo taken at No. 10 Downing Street with the Prime Minister. Photos of the previous incumbents line the corridor walls in No. 9 Downing Street (which links to the Cabinet Office and is where the Chief Whip and his staff reside when they're not over in the Commons). I could spend hours looking at them. The very first ones date back maybe 100 years or so, with a small group of maybe five or six men in top hats and tails posing raffishly in chairs on the Terrace. My favourite is one from the 1950s with a bunch of Tory whips striding purposefully across the Downing Street lawn, Reservoir Dogs style.

I'm still convinced we should have recreated that this morning, instead of what we did, with a rather uninspired set-up with one row of whips sitting, one row of whips standing and the PM and Chief sitting in the middle. I was obviously standing - tall ones at the back!

The display of photos at No. 9 reveal that there were no women in the Whips Office until Wilson's 1964 team, where history was made by Harriet Slater. (I have to confess I've never heard of her). She served till 1966 and then it was thirty years - thirty years! - before another woman joined the Whips Office, with Jacqui Lait being appointed in the dying years of the Major administration.

And then Labour got elected and pretty soon we had the first female Chief Whip (Ann Taylor, 1998-2001), the second (Hilary Armstrong, 2001-2006) and the third (Jacqui Smith, 2006-2007), as well as a whole host of junior female whips. And the Whips Office became the cuddly, friendly, inviting place, smelling of flowers and cake, that it is today.

I'll post a copy of the photo when I have one, and I will very, very rigorously vet the comments!

A low carbon future?

The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan may not be the most exciting or attention-grabbing title but the statement today from Ed Miliband had some excellent stuff in it.

As I've mentioned before I have a company in my constituency, Garrad Hassan, which lays claim to being the world's leading wind energy consultancy. They will welcome this, I'm sure, as it's what they've been lobbying for:

"To deliver the changes in our energy supplies between now and 2020, we must make it easier for investors to turn low-carbon projects into reality. Having tackled the planning rules, I believe we now need to do more to deal with the issue of grid connection, so I am today announcing that I will exercise the reserve powers provided under the Energy Act 2008 for Government, rather than the regulator, to set the grid access regime. The new rules should be in place within 12 months, so that instead of waiting for more than a decade for grid connection, as can happen now, we can get the fast access to the grid that renewable projects need."

And this:

"We also need to nurture the offshore wind industry, in which we have a unique resource, so I am making available up to £120 million to support the growth of a world-leading offshore wind industry in Britain. As well as supporting the demonstration and testing of offshore wind, the money will be used to attract offshore wind manufacturers to the UK. We estimate that those investments will help to nurture industries that can support hundreds of thousands of jobs in our country. We can make that investment today only because, even in the tough times, we made the choice to invest in the economy of the future."

More good stuff on feed-in tariffs, rail electrification, moving forward on the Severn barrage. I'll be spending the next few weeks trying to find out more about what this means for Bristol and what more we need to do to ensure we can be part of this. We're obviously well-placed, with Forum for the Future's Sustainable City work (e.g. the home insulation scheme), and with a host of SMEs in the 'green economy' sector, and what could simply be characterised as the right mindset - people and businesses who care about the environment, who are prepared to make adjustments to their own behaviour and lifestyles and indeed are keen to do so, but look to Government to provide encouragement and incentives, and to remove the obstacles which prevent progress being made.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Jobs for the boys

It's too soon to judge what difference John Bercow will make as Speaker of the Commons, but there have already been a couple of developments. Firstly, he's announced that there will be elections for Deputy Speakers. I don't know what the current system is for anointing Deputies - I assume it's either in the gift of the Speaker, or the whips/ party leaders. At the moment the posts are held by Sir Alan Haselhurst (Con), Sir Michael Lord (Con), and Sylvia Heal (Lab) - the convention is that it's a balanced ticket between the Government and the Opposition, and the current balance is of course a legacy from when Michael Martin, a former Labour MP, was Speaker.

Deputies are subject to the same restrictions as the Speaker - i.e. they don't speak in debates, or vote - but there's not the same convention that opposition parties shouldn't stand against them at the General Election and they can return to being 'normal' MPs if they stop being deputies. The current word is that Sir Michael Lord will head 'upstairs' to the Lords, although I don't now if this would be now, necessitating a by-election, or at the next General. I would expect Sir Alan to be re-elected should he choose to stand again, as he's a popular figure, as is Sylvia. No suggestion yet of other names in the frame, but I'd expect a Lib Dem to come forward (who'd have to go head to head with Sir Alan, as the new Speaker is a Tory, even if most Tories regard him as having left the fold many years ago!) And we'll be looking for another Labour name, but I've no idea who would be interested. Of those who ran for Speaker, Parmjit has ruled himself out, and I don't think Margaret Beckett would be keen either.

The other noticeable development from Bercow is the granting of requests for urgent questions. We've had three or four in the past few weeks, since he took up post, which is more than I can remember for many months, if not years. This is good, it makes Parliament far more responsive to current events. They only last for about 20 minutes, but they're a useful device.

Last week, for example, Evan Harris MP put in an urgent question on the News of the World phone-tapping/ Coulson affair (can anyone come up with anything better than Coulsongate?) Slightly bizarre scenario, in that the question was answered by David Hanson, the Justice Minister, on behalf of the Government, whereas obviously the people who should have been answering were sitting squirming on the Tory front bench. Tricky for Bercow, in that the rule is usually that questions should be aimed at the Government minister, and questions about Opposition words or deeds are quashed with the mantra that 'Opposition policy is not a matter for the Minister' but it would have been nonsensical to have dealt with this particular issue without calling into question Cameron's judgment and whether or not Coulson should remain in post. Backbenchers got round this by, for example, asking whether it was appropriate for Coulson to have a parliamentary pass and whether he should be suspended from having one whilst an investigation is carried out.

As I'm on the subject of Cameron's loyalty to his pals, it's interesting to note what's being said about the set-up of Cameron's 'West Wing' should the country take leave of its senses and elect a Tory Government at the next election. Apparently they're going to knock through No. 10 and No. 11 (metaphorically, if not literally) and Dave and George are going to have offices next to each other. The role of Chief Sec to the Treasury is going to be substantially beefed up, so that a lot of the Chancellor's work passes to him or her. (Actually, let's just make that him - chances of it being a woman are slim to non-existent!) So basically the Chancellor - or Obsorne, as this is designed purely for his benefit - is going to be freed up to play more of a role as a political strategist, as he does now, and leave someone else to the tedious business of running the economy. He has of course recently admitted that he spends only 40% of his time on economics and seems to think that's rather a lot. Is this, I ask myself, because Cameron so values Osborne's advice on political strategy, or is it because he doesn't think he's quite cut out to be Chancellor? And in either case, wouldn't it simply be better not to appoint him Chancellor in the first place, and get someone in who can and wants to do the job?

The week in Parliament

This week is of course the last full week in Parliament before recess, although we're back on the following Monday and Tuesday and then I'm heading up to Norwich to do my bit in the by-election campaign. Gordon is making a statement at 3.30pm tomorrow on the G8 summit, and then we have the remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill. There's been a bit of debate about an amendment that's coming to us from the Lords, on whether people who don't pay tax in the UK - but are British citizens and are entitled to vote here - should be allowed to make donations to UK political parties.

Under the current legislation, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000, donation from foreign nationals are banned, which put an end to the Greek shipping tycoons funding the Tory party. The amendment coming from the Lords is being dubbed the 'Ashcroft' amendment, as it would either mean he'd have to stop bankrolling the Tories or start paying tax in the UK. Ashcroft has of course previously pledged to start doing so, and Cameron and Osborne's line is something along the lines of 'they have no reason to believe he hasn't started to do so'.

As I said, there's genuine debate about this, because on the one hand someone who uses tax havens or goes into tax exile could be seen to have 'opted out' of the UK and thus renounced some of the rights and responsibilites that go with that, but if they are still free to vote here, free to come and go as they please, free even to sit in the House of Lords and legislate on the UK's behalf, why shouldn't they be allowed to make donations to political parties? Of course although this is seen as being targeted as Ashcroft - and again, I'd stress, it's coming from the Lords rather than the Government although Jack Straw has now signalled the Government won't seek to reverse it - there are others who will be caught by it, such as Sir Sean Connery who gives money to the SNP but whose patriotism doesn't actually extend as far as living in Scotland.

As for the rest of the parliamentary session, we've got the remaining stages of the Borders and Citizenship Bill on Tuesday, and Opposition Day debates on Wednesday. The Tories at the moment are saying that the debates will be on NHS dentistry and caring for the elderly, but chances are they will swap at least one of the topics at the last moment, in favour of something more controversial. On Thursday it's a one-liner, with a debate on climate change and preparation for the Copenhagen summit. The week after it's the long-awaited Second Reading of the Child Poverty Bill, and then we get into whatever ping-ponging is still going on between the Commons and the Lords. I would very much have liked to have spoken in the Child Poverty Bill debate, and probably in the climate change debate too, but for the time being my interventions in the Commons are limited to reading things out from the Whips folder. All the more reason to blog, I suppose.

Australians on the train

So, armed with my new resolve to blog a little more often, I'm on a train to London. I put it off for as long as possible as it's far more pleasant in Bristol with the balcony doors open and the seagulls making the sort of racket only seagulls can make. I have an early start tomorrow - although that only involves sitting indoors waiting for someone who might turn up at any point between 7am and 1pm to deliver some documents - so have to get down to London tonight. The train is absolutely packed, mostly with Australians on their way back from the cricket in Cardiff, being rather loud and drinking lots of beer, and making jokes about pornography and homosexuals and generally behaving in the way one might expect Australians to behave.

The ones across the aisle from me have an inflatable sheep in their beer bag; I can just see its hoof sticking out. (Not that I've been able to identify it as such just by its hoof; they've been talking about their failure to produce it during the match. Not sure if they have a sheep because they're Australian, or because they were visiting Wales, or perhaps both?)

As I'm sure I've told people before, I once attempted to buy an inflatable sheep online for a 'Farmers for Europe' stall, which Britain in Europe was having at one of the big country shows. Not a wise move. The choice basically narrows down to whether you want two or three orifices, and whether or not the sheep is wearing lipstick, and I didn't think Lord Sainsbury - who more or less bankrolled BIE - would have approved. But who knows, the farmers might have been rather impressed, or at least distracted enough for me to be able to lure them into a conversation about the Common Agricultural Policy and the effect of fluctuating exchange rates on farm exports.

All out elections for Bristol?

OK, here's a quick post. Bristol Labour types have launched a petition for Bristol City Council to move to all-out four year elections. I've blogged on here many times before as to why I support this. We need clear leadership in Bristol, and the fact that we have one-thirds up every year just means that the Council is hampered by indecisiveness and timidity as soon as polling day comes into its sights (which is more or less about six months after a new administration takes over, unless of course it's a Lib Dem administration in which case it's as soon as the Focus leaflets have to be translated into political action). I would urge you to sign the petition but I've tried three times now and failed - it says 'unknown column "town" in field list'. Wil get Mr Cook on the case.

Transmission breakdown

I really have been very lax at blogging lately, to the extent that my mother phoned on Friday asking where I'd got to - double guilt there, you haven't called, you haven't blogged, do you still exist? Although she does still get the 'They Work For You' alerts, so she knows really that I do. They now consist solely of me saying 'I beg to move that the House do now adjourn' or perhaps the occasional 'Aye', so I'd suggest that everyone who follows me on there deactivates their alerts - it's not going to get anymore exciting than that for some time.

I blame Twitter, which is a pleasant and less taxing way to spend an evening. It's more immediate interaction than on a blog, and easier to rope other people into the conversation or to spread the word about something. Doesn't feel like I'm the one doing all the work. Also, being in an open plan whips office throughout the day which provides multiple distractions, and just having lots of 'stuff to do' when I'm not working (which isn't very often).

Will attempt to resume normal service as soon as inspiration strikes. In the meantime, here's some Joy Division, carnival stylee, to get the party started.

And in a lazy way of kick-starting debate on the NOTW/ tapping stuff, here's Sadie at her best (despite having flu).