Sunday 28 February 2010

April Skies

I'm on the last train to London. Too tired to blog about anything which requires any engagement of brain cells... There are several reasons why.

Firstly, I'm having to spend Fridays in London at the moment as we've got a run of Friday sittings to get through Private Members business before the election. (I say 'get through' - if anything about the parliamentary process was in need of reform, it's what happens on Fridays, when the filibuster still reigns supreme. More about that later, perhaps). I'm one of the Friday whips, so I have to be there to cover bench duty till about 3pm, which more or less rules out getting back to Bristol till the evening. So basically, a lot of the stuff I would do on Fridays in my constituency has to be done over the weekend. I was in the office for several hours earlier this evening, after spending an hour at the home the family of a constituent who has been arrested for plane-spotting in India. We're hoping he'll be allowed to come home after a court appearance on Wednesday, but I've got some early morning phone calls to make to India tomorrow, to try to get updates from his lawyer and the High Commission.

Another reason is that campaigning has stepped up a gear, and the weather has by and large been in our favour, so no rained-off sessions giving an excuse to spend an afternoon on the sofa. I was out today in Brislington (the Hungerford Road area) and again yesterday (the bit of Broomhill up by the industrial estate). Picked up a fair bit of casework, which was one of the reasons I had to go into the office this evening. I find if I don't transcribe my scribbled notes as soon as possible, they make very little sense.

The third reason is that, as interest in the election grows, the number of letters and emails and requests to sign up to campaign pledges grows too. I'm trying to suss out how to make it easy for voters to see what I've signed up to, but not sure my website can be adapted... we're working on it. The requests to take part in election hustings/ Q and A panels are also coming in... I took part in one on Saturday, organised by the African-Caribbean community, and met some excellent people. Lots of my cards given out, and lots of issues to follow up on. I've already agreed to a few more. There's one at St Brendan's Sixth Form soon, and another one in April organised by the two unis, for their staff. If there are any that are open to the general public - e.g. the churches organised some last time round - I'll stick it on the Facebook site and/or here.

Fourth reason... Campaigns don't just plan themselves. I've got a great bunch of volunteers, but there's still leaflets to be approved, fundraising to organise, ministerial visits to arrange, and 101 other things to get sorted, like the website and facebook and changing my Twitter name, which I will get round to eventually. We'll be doing a fair bit of direct mailing - i.e. writing to voters on issues that we know they're interested in, or concerned about - and it's important to get the text of these right. All the parties will have their centrally-produced copy, but I prefer to do it myself. I don't want to put out anything in my name that doesn't actually sound like me.

The role I have in the national campaign, as the new media spokesperson, is also taking up a fair bit of time. Lots of requests for interviews (especially from students doing their dissertations and sorry for all those who have sent in emails but haven't heard back from me yet - will get round to you soon!) but also from the national press and the more techy/ PR/ new media press. There's a real fascination out there in the mainstream media as to what role new media will play in the campaign, especially as the contrast between the Tory loads-of-money campaign and Labour's "fighters and believers" becomes more apparent, and as the Labour approach - authenticity, passion, and policies - appears to be paying off in the polls.

And finally, there is of course the fact that everyone is now working towards a deadline that is getting ever closer. I very much doubt the election will be held any earlier than May 6th (though I'm certainly not 'in the loop' as far as discussions about that go). On that reckoning we've got about 5 weeks left in Parliament, and a lot of business to get through. I'm the Northern Ireland whip, for example, and there are various statutory instruments which absolutely have to be in place before elections take place there.

We also have to clear our desks this month. We're not allowed to use our parliamentary offices after "wash-up"... that's the period immediately after the Prime Minister goes to the palace, when the parties try to agree on as much of the outstanding legislation as possible. If there's consensus, some stuff will go through; if there's not, it won't. We can go into the office to pick up stuff, but the computers can't be used and no work can be carried out. By contrast, staff in the constituency can continue to handle existing casework, but not new casework. If we pick up new casework on the campaign trail, after I've ceased to be an MP and am just a candidate, then I will have to handle it myself or get volunteers to help out. Most likely the former.

In fact I'm still trying to work out the details of exactly what the rules on dissolution are. I know, for example, we can't use our parliamentary email addresses, but not sure if we can still check parliamentary email or whether the accounts are completely disabled. I assume staff handling casework can still access their email, otherwise it could make life very difficult for people trying to contact us. So there's all that to look into too. And letters to write to people who have been constituents for the past five years, and have been helped by my office, but will be going into a new constituency. All that kind of stuff.

So, there you go... that's the next month taken care of. Next post will be about the campaign to save BBC 6 Music, but my train will be getting into London very soon, so will save that one for tomorrow. I'll be glad when the election is called and I can spend the whole month in Bristol.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Pat-Trip Dispenser

I'm not sure whether this is one of those issues that flares up for a short period of time, gets everyone talking, and then burns itself out, or whether the Science and Technology Select Committee's report this week on homeopathy is actually the start of something. The Select Committee has called for the Government to stop NHS funding for homeopathic treatment, as there is no scientific proof of its effectiveness. This is of particular local significance, as Bristol Homeopathic Hospital receives £260,000 in annual funding from the NHS.

This follows fast in the footsteps of a recent stunt by the anti-homeopathy campaign, 10:23, which is trying to persuade Boots to stop 'lending legitimacy to nonsense' by stocking homeopathic medicines. (See for more).

The Select Committee report in itself doesn't mean that anything much is going to happen. The Government will now be working on its response, which will include an indication of whether or not the Government is inclined to act upon any or all of the recommendations. Some, though not all, Select Committee reports are then debated in Parliament, usually in Westminster Hall on a Thursday afternoon. There's not time in the parliamentary calendar to do them all, so it's the Committee members who decide which ones are debated. And even then, there's no binding obligation on the Government to act, apart from continued pressure from the Committee and other interested parties.

However.... there is of course the small matter of a General Election looming upon the horizon so I'm not sure whether we will get to see the Government's response to the S+T Committee's report before Parliament is dissolved. I've told the constituent who came to see me today on a lobby of parliament that I will try to find out. I suspect it will be lost in the deluge, and it will be autumn, once the new Select Committees are established and Parliament gets back to normal, before it's revisited. I assume that if the Government hasn't responded before the election, the new Government (by which I mean the newly-constituted Government, not necessarily a Government of a different political hue) will not be under any obligation to do so, so it might be back to square one for the Committee.

The constituent who came to see me today swears by homeopathy, and is also a supporter of anthroposophical medicine; apparently the Helios clinic in Bristol, which is also a conventional GPs surgery, is one of only half a dozen or so in the country. He presents this as a matter of personal choice: if it works for him, who are we to deny him the right to such treatment?

Would be interested to know what people think... In particular, if some people swear by the benefits of homeopathy - people who are paying their taxes the same as everyone else - do we have the right to deny them the NHS service of their choice? Do we tell them that they're wrong, and science is right, even if they swear the opposite to be true? In some ways the argument that the NHS should be responsive to what patients want, not what clinicians/ bureaucrats decide, is an attractive one. If someone with terminal cancer loathes the idea of chemotherapy, and wants to try mistletoe instead (see the wiki link for anthroposophy), then who are we to dictate their choices?

But then I recall the cases I've fought on behalf of constituents with breast cancer, kidney cancer, and macular degeneration, who've been told by NICE that their drugs do not meet the cost-benefit-analysis test and will no longer be provided on the NHS. And the constituents who were denied fertility treatment because the odds were too low and the course of treatment too expensive. And all the other pressures on the NHS. It can't just be whatever people want, but what is the best use of public money. And then the question is, of course, who decides that? The scientists? Or the public?

Kerry's Guide to PMQs

Here's today's running order. Expect Cameron to get in a 'forces of hell' gag which will be met with not-at-all faked hilarity from the Tory backbenchers and over-exuberant thigh-slapping from Sven. Stephen Pound, if we get to him, will by contrast be genuinely funny. Clegg might well go on the NOTW phone-tapping stuff. Dari Taylor will, I expect, go on Corus as it's a big local issue. Richard Benyon is the great-great grandson of former Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and lives in the ancestral home. This probably has no bearing at all on the question he is going to ask today, but just thought you might be interested!

Q1 Jamie Reed (Copeland):
Random Labour backbencher
Q2 David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells):
Random Labour backbencher
Q3 David Amess (Southend West):
Random Labour backbencher

Q4 Stewart Jackson (Peterborough):
Q5 Dari Taylor (Stockton South):
Random Opposition backbencher
Q6 Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne & Sheppey):
Q7 Richard Benyon (Newbury):
Q8 Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow):
Q9 Michael Ancram (Devizes):
Q10 Stephen Pound (Ealing North):
Random Opposition backbencher
Q11 David Anderson (Blaydon):
Q12 John Whittingdale (Maldon & East Chelmsford):

Random Labour backbencher
Q13 James Brokenshire (Hornchurch):
Q14 Liz Blackman (Erewash):
Q15 Angela Watkinson (Upminster):

What I'm Doing Today

Nearly two weeks since I last blogged! Thought I'd get time to catch up over half-term recess, but as busy as ever. Apologies also to people who are waiting for me to reply to correspondence, especially on two big issues at the moment, Digital Economy Bill and Libel Reform. It's not that I'm ignoring you, it's that I want to do justice to the issues, which are complex, and not just fob you off with a rushed response. Also, with the DE Bill in particular, it's a moveable feast, as it's going through the Lords... Anyway, now that the Children Schools and Families Bill has got through its Third Reading in the Commons, life should be a little less hectic and give me the chance to deal with the mountains of paperwork. Yesterday, as the CSF departmental whip, I spent 11 hours on the Bill, and another couple doing other things like urgent emails and stuff relating to my constituent who's recently been arrested in India for plane-spotting. I hesitate to say today will be quiet, but it will at least mean I get to spend some time in my office rather than the Whips Office ... I hope.

Business in the Commons today is the remaining stages of the Energy Bill, after David Drew has presented his Public Bodies (Procurement of Seafood) Ten Minute Rule Bill, which sounds intriguing to say the least. It'll be a running whip on the Energy Bill, with votes possible throughout the day.

I'm also:

- Meeting with Jim Knight, the Minister for the South West, mostly to talk about regional economic issues, (good news yesterday, by the way, about the Bristol Science Park getting the go-ahead)

- Popping into the launch of the Robin Hood tax campaign (something I intend to blog about at some length, seeing as I do actually know a leetle bit about the financial markets - broadly supportive but don't think it's as easy to implement as people are suggesting.)

- Seeing a constituent who's here on a lobby of Parliament in support of homeopathy. Bristol is one of four cities which has an NHS-funded homeopathic hospital, and there's clear support for it from patients, but the Science and Technology Committee has said it's a waste of public money.

- Doing a little bit of whips' stuff - already had a breakfast meeting today, and Wednesdays are the day we sort out who is 'slipped' from the whip next week, which involves contacting all my Ministers (DCSF, DFID and NI) and South West backbenchers to see what their plans are.

And of course it's PMQs... more on that in a moment.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Rip It Up

I do like the Orange Juice one, and Thatcher rising from the dead, but this is my favourite so far.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor

I've been on last slot on bench duty this week, so have had the opportunity to observe the nightly rituals carried out by the Deputy Speaker and various MITs (men in tights, 'though not all wear tights and one of them is a woman) after business has finished in the Commons. I may have this not quite in the right order, particularly as most of it happens almost out of sight behind the Speakers Chair, but trust me, this is more than you'll ever need to know. Much more.

Say it's a Monday night. We get to 10.30pm, or if there have been late votes, 30 minutes after the adjournment debate began. The Deputy Speaker stands, 'Order Order' he/ she says, and starts to leave the Chair.

One of the MITs walks in, picks up the mace (at which point all MPs still in the Chamber have to stand up 'for the mace'), swings it over his/ her shoulder and walks out behind the Speaker's Chair, whereupon he/ she hands the mace to someone else who walks backwards with it a bit, and then veers off to the right and stands there holding it.

At some point a shout goes up from each end of the Chamber, "Home!" and someone else behind the Speaker's Chair replies: "Who goes home?!" No-one answers.

The Dep. Speaker (very rarely the Speaker at this time of night) - who has got down off his perch and is now behind the Chair with various MITs - looks at the the Serjeant-at-Arms. "2.30pm tomorrow!" says the Speaker. "2.30pm tomorrow!" repeats the Serjeant-at-Arms.

Then the Serjeant-at-Arms looks at the Principal Doorkeeper: "2.30pm tomorrow!" says the Serjeant-at-Arms. "2.30pm tomorrow!" says the Principal Doorkeeper back to the Serjeant-at-Arms. At which point, satisfied they all know what time they're due back at work the next day, they can all go home.

This nightly ritual is evidently a cornerstone of our parliamentary democracy without which the whole edifice would crumble and anarchy would ensue. But I wonder just who dreamt it up? Was there an eighteenth or whatever century equivalent of the Wright Committee set up to decide just how much bowing and scraping and walking backwards and repetition of "2.30pm" there should be at the end of each day? (They say 11.30am on Tuesday night btw, and 10.30am on Wednesday night, and this evening they said "2.30pm on the 22nd February because it's half-term). Were there any dissenting voices? Did anyone suggest, for example, that it wasn't quite sufficient for the Speaker to say it to the Serjeant and the Serjeant to say it back, and the Principal Doorkeeper etc, etc, and that perhaps a Deputy Doorkeeper ought to be roped in too to make 100% sure that no-one was going to get it wrong and turn up half an hour earlier or later the next day? And did anyone say, 'Look this is all very silly and we all know perfectly well what time the business starts each day, so let's just call it a night when someone shouts 'Home!' and all clear off without bothering with any of the fancy stuff?

As a more serious postscript to this, we will be debating some of the recommendations from the Wright Committee on 22nd February, when the Commons returns after half-term recess. (It's official title of the report is something like 'Rebuilding the House - Reform of the House of Commons Committee', but everyone calls it after its chair, Tony Wright).

As it's House, not Government, business it will be a free vote on things like allowing backbenchers more say over what is discussed on the floor of the House, and having elections for Select Committee chairs. See here for more details.

However... when the Committee drew up its report, there was a dissenting voice from Labour backbencher Natascha Engel, who doesn't think the proposals go anywhere near far enough, and has now suggested that if we accept the recommendations, we'll lose a once in a generation chance to really put our House in order. I have a lot of time for Natascha; I will be listening closely to what she says.

Let's say I agree with Natascha, and want more radical reform, and, in effect, want to send the Committee back to the drawing board. So I vote down the proposals. I vote against reform, but for all the right reasons. I will no doubt be joined in the division lobbies by some of the Tory Tufton Buftons, who turn purple at the very thought of changing anything. Next thing you know I will be listed on Theyworkforyou as "Voted very strongly against the reform of parliament" and this damning indictment will be used as a reference point by constituents and others for months and years to come.

I say this with confidence as I've been here before, last time we looked at parliamentary reform (which I think ended up as "Voted against a transparent parliament"). See also "Voted against an inquiry into the Iraq war" (no, I voted against an immediate inquiry and for an inquiry as soon as the troops came home).

We shall see how it all pans out. Chances are I will go along with the Wright Committee recommendations, which I've read but have yet to study in depth, on the grounds that some change is better than no change and we need to be seen to be changing in response to the political crisis of the past few years. But we shall see....

Lock in

I was asked yesterday on Twitter what it means when the shout goes up 'lock the doors' during votes. (Yesterday being one of those rare parliamentary occasions when political animals were glued to the TV, waiting to see how the House voted on AV).

Basically, there are two division lobbies which run either side of the Chamber, where we vote. The one behind the Government benches is the Aye lobby; the one behind the Opposition is the Noe lobby. There are three entrances to each lobby, and one exit during votes. So... if you're voting Aye, you'd either enter through big doors to the left just outside the Chamber at the back of the Speaker's Chair, or through one of the doors situated at the back of the Government benches, at the far right and far left. And you'd exit after going through the division lobby, giving your name to the clerk, and being counted by the Whips (the "tellers") at doors at the opposite end to the Speaker, just outside the Chamber, by Members' lobby.

If you're voting No, you'd enter on the right, at the opposite end from the Speaker's chair, or through the doors by the back rows on the far left and far right of the Opposition benches, and you'd emerge outside behind the back of the Speaker's Chair, on the right.

The tellers, btw, are the four people who come in, make their bows and announce the result of the votes. The winners always stand by the Opposition benches, and one of them who reads out the result. I was one of the tellers earlier this week, along with the Labour MP Bob Blizzard and the Tories, Bill Wiggin and John Baron. Not one of them under 6'2". Bill kindly suggested I should stand on one of the Despatch Boxes.

Anyway... we have eight minutes to get into the division lobbies. There's no time limit on getting out, but the Speaker will send one of the men in tights (who don't all wear tights, but it's a useful collective noun for them) to investigate if people are taking too long. It's usually about 15 minutes all told.

But back to the eight minutes... the very second those eight minutes are up, the call goes out "lock the doors!" and the doors are all slammed shut by the MITs. On busy days, with running whips (which means votes at any time, not that the whips run around frantically, 'though that's often the case too), it's not uncommon to see senior Government ministers sprinting through Members' lobby or up the stairs, trying to make the vote, only to see the doors slammed in their faces. No exceptions, no pleading - I've seen Cabinet Ministers miss votes before. So there you have it. If you think this is a strange way to run a democracy, wait till you read my next post.

Tombstone Blues

As the doctor says in the song, "My advice is to not let the boys in" Indeed. Enjoy!

Kerry's Guide to PMQs

Returning after a few weeks off, because I've been so busy. Just for Bristol Dave, as I know he appreciates it... Excellent draw for Labour this week. A few Qs have been withdrawn, including Jim Devine who had been down as No. 1 (phew!) and Rob Flello, who has to be elsewhere.

Q1 Dr Brian Iddon (Bolton South East): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 February. Probably last ever appearance at PMQs for the very well-respected Mr Iddon, who's standing down at the next election. To be replaced, one hopes, by the very lovely Maryam Khan (@Maryam4BuryNorth on Twitter).

CAMERON - 6 Qs, or possibly 3 Qs now, 3 Qs later

Random Labour backbencher or a 'queue jumper' from lower on order paper

CLEGG - 2 Qs

Q2 Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South): Local issue I suspect.

Random Opposition backbencher, from any party

Q3 Dr Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Former transport minister, marginal seat.

Q4 Mr Douglas Carswell (Harwich): Mr Carswell is asking people on his blog what he should ask at PMQs today.

Q5 Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park & Kensington North): Karen will resist the temptation to dwell on Tory misfortunes in her own back yard, (no Cash for questions?) but expect a few chuckles.

Random Opposition backbencher, from any party

Q6 Mr Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Can never be quite sure what Gordon will come up with.

Q7 Mr Roger Williams (Brecon & Radnorshire): Welsh hill farmer, comes up often at PMQs and we always predict he'll ask about sheep, but he never does.

Random Labour backbencher or a 'queue jumper' from lower on order paper

Q8 Mr Phil Willis (Harrogate & Knaresborough):

Q9 Gwyn Prosser (Dover):

Random Opposition backbencher, from any party

Q10 Mr Chris Mullin (Sunderland South):

Q11 Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Deputy Tory Chief Whip. Will probably live down to expectations and be a little bit nasty. Quite often gets pulled up by Speaker for heckling during PMQs so has started sitting further away from the Speaker's Chair.

Random Labour backbencher

Q12 Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset & North Poole): Nice woman, Lib Dem spokesperson on children's issues and also chair of the APPG on Microfinance.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Some Candy Talking

Well it didn't take them long, did it? Kraft have confirmed - or rather, announced because it wasn't even floated before today - that they're going to close the Cadbury's plant in Keynsham, despite declaring during their takeover bid that they wanted to reverse Cadbury's plans to move production to Poland. As an MP who has many constituents working at the Somerdale plant, I had to an extent put aside my misgivings about an American company taking over a British institution like Cadbury's on a highly-leveraged buyout because of their assurances on the future of Somerdale, and their apparent willingness to reconsider Cadbury's decision to close the plant. I'm sure Dan Norris, the local MP, has been on the case and will try to catch him at the votes later on tonight to see what we can do. I think an urgent meeting with Cadbury's management must be on the cards. In the meantime, I'll be sticking to Divine rather than Green and Black's.

Spock's Missing

An act of genius to set this to the William Shatner version. Apparently Ian Cawsey's Tory opponent in Brigg and Goole is trying to get it banned. Enjoy!

Tell It Like It Is

I've been slightly taken aback at receiving quite a few angry emails over the past few days about Friday's Private Members Bill sitting, at which I was the whip on bench duty. We got through a fair bit of business, with all stages of Anthony Steen's Anti-Slavery Day Bill and Andrew Dismore's pleural plaques bill, which he's tried to get through the Commons before and this time was successful, with Government support. As the session drew to an end at 2.30pm we had just started on another Andrew Dismore bill, but there obviously wasn't time to debate it and it will be relisted for hearing on another date. It's then the job of the whip on bench duty to tell the Speaker what the Government's position is on the remaining Bills listed for hearing. The fifth Bill on the list was the Contaminated Blood Bill, which does not have Government support. My job therefore was to shout 'Object' as the title of the Bill was read out. That was the extent of my involvement; the actual decision was nothing to do with me, and if I hadn't shouted 'Object' the Deputy Chief Whip would have done so, or the Minister. But obviously the people who are directly affected by this issue are upset, and have contacted me to tell me so. This is partly because they have - mistakenly I believe - pinned all their hopes on this Bill getting through the parliamentary process which, quite frankly, was not going to happen, especially not given how close we are to the end of this parliament. Anyway, here's a letter I've sent out in reply to a constituent, in a bid to explain, and I've also written in similar terms to everyone else who has contacted me. I've had some nice responses back from people, who at least appreciate the fact I've responded, even if they don't agree with me or the Government. Here's the letter:

"Thank you for your emails regarding the Contaminated Blood Bill. I completely understand why this is so important to many people and why you find it frustrating that the Bill did not receive a Second Reading on Friday. The Bill, however, was not reached during Friday's sitting, as it was fifth Bill listed for debate on the order paper and the House had only just started debating the fourth Bill when we reached 2.30pm. As we ran out of time, there was no opportunity for a debate on the many measures in the Bill.

The Government's view was that it was not appropriate for the Bill to go through without a proper debate in the Commons, i.e. the objection was to it going through 'on the nod', rather than to the Bill itself. I was the duty whip on Friday, so it was my responsibility to announce the Government's decision. Understandably, I have received a number of emails from people across the country, and from TaintedBlood, about my role in this and I have responded to them all to clarify the situation and explain it was not my personal objection. As you are a constituent with whom I have previously discussed these issues, I appreciate that you may be concerned more than most, so I will be happy to meet with you again to discuss this in more detail.

I certainly do not underestimate the understandably strong feeling within the haemophiliac community about Lord Archer’s Report and Lord Morris’s Bill, particularly following my meeting with you, discussions with other constituents, and through my membership of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Haemophilia. Indeed, you will know that I have previously written to Ministers on a number of occasions in support of your objectives. I should make clear, therefore, that I am personally supportive of some of the measures in the Bill, although I have reservations about some elements. For example, while I appreciate why campaigners are calling for free prescriptions for haemophiliacs, I do not think this issue should be decided on an individual basis when there are so many other groups calling for similar action on behalf of those with chronic conditions. The Government, as you may know, set up the Gilmore review to look at whether the right to free prescriptions should be extended, and is currently considering its recommendations.

The Bill will be relisted for a Second Reading on 26th February. It is not, however, likely to be high up the order paper as the order is determined by where members came in the ballot for Private Members Bills, and the mover of the Bill, Mr Eddie O'Hara was not drawn in the ballot. As we are so close to the end of this parliamentary session it is very unlikely that more than a handful of Private Members Bills will make it through the legislative process and priority will be given to those bills which did top the ballot.

I have spoken today with Dr Brian Iddon MP, who has been very supportive of the haemophiliac community. He told me he advised campaigners before the Bill was introduced to the House of Commons that it would unfortunately be very difficult to secure sufficient Parliamentary time for it to be fully debated and passed, and that it would be objected to on behalf of the Government by a whip at Friday's sitting.

Dr Iddon actually secured first place in the Private Members Bill ballot, and considered taking up the Contaminated Blood Bill, but came to the conclusion that there was no chance of it being approved by Parliament before the end of this session. Dr Iddon takes the view, as do I, that the way forward is to continue to make the case to the Department of Health on some of the specific recommendations of the Archer review, rather than seek to push through legislation which does not have Government support.

I realise you will be disappointed with this response, but I hope it is helpful in explaining to you what happened on Friday. I know that your health sadly meant that you were not able to come to our last meeting, but if you would like to meet again to discuss this, and explain which specific measures you believe should be a priority, please do contact my office to arrange a time. I can assure you that I will, in any event, continue to lobby the Department of Health on your behalf."

I'm Mandy Fly me

Just had an email to inform me that the Speaker wants the Procedure Committee to 'inquire into increasing the accountability of Ministers in the House of Lords to the elected members of the Commons.' They want to know:
  • Do you think that Secretaries of State in the House of Lords should be more directly accountable to the House of Commons?
  • If so, do you think that such scrutiny should take place in the Chamber, Westminster Hall or another forum?
  • Should such scrutiny take the form of questions or also include debates?

My answer would probably be, in the short term of course until we have a democratically-elected second chamber, that yes Secretaries of State in the Lords (which means Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis) should take part in departmental questions in the Commons and should also come to the Commons to give statements and be questioned on those statements but they shouldn't take part in debates on legislation as otherwise they'd be de facto Commons ministers. It would of course be a big step forward for Lords ministers to be allowed on the floor of the Chamber. Some will no doubt see it as an outrageous breach of parliamentary convention, and suggest that it will undermine the very foundations of parliamentary democracy, but my only concern would be that in enhancing the legitimacy of the unelected Ministers it would prolong the existence of the unelected second chamber. Seeing as we're committed to a directly elected Second Chamber (and by we, I mean Labour) I don't think we need to worry too much about that. (I actually don't know what the Tory view is on an elected second chamber. I know they voted the other week to keep the remaining 92 hereditaries, but not sure what their long-term view is).

Monday 8 February 2010

Lies, damn lies and Lib Dem statistics

Speaking of being honest in campaign literature, the Lib Dems in east Bristol are running one of their usual 'only the Lib Dems can beat Labour here' graphs on their latest (which is also their first) parliamentary election leaflet. It has the result of the 2005 General Election showing Labour represented by a big red column, the Lib Dems on a ever so slightly smaller yellow column, and the Tories lagging way behind with a little blue stump. They must think voters are really stupid, as the actual number of votes cast for each party is conveniently printed on each column too, and makes a complete mockery of their measurements: 19,152 votes for Labour; 10,531 for the Lib Dems; and 8,787 for the Conservatives. Oh, and there's the small matter of boundary changes, which mean that the 2005 General Election results are not an entirely useful guide to what will happen in 2010.

More on the Lib Dem leaflet soon and my thoughts on why they're making such great play of their candidate's RAF background, even down to including a pic of him in uniform... appealing to 'patriotic' voters by the look of it. And why he's just emailed me a letter asking me to confirm that my expenses claims were all in accordance with parliamentary rules. The answer is a categoric yes. I suspect they scent Tory blood, given recent revelations - which I can't decide whether I should blog about or not - and are now gearing up to have a pop at me. Just remember folks, there are lies, damn lies and Lib Dem lies.

New kids on the blog

My colleague Jamie Reed has just popped into the whips office and told me off for not having looked at his blog yet: so here it is, and very excellent it is too. My colleague Andrew Gwynne has also been nagging me from his sickbed to give his new blog for Think Politics a plug.

I particularly like Andrew's post on whether being local makes for being a better MP...

One of my opponents at the General Election is making great play of her local credentials. The front of her leaflet proclaims her "the local candidate" and another headline inside says "working and living locally". Not quite sure living in Westbury-on-Trym counts as "local" in east Bristol, but leaving that to one side... Does it actually matter?

I'm not from Bristol. I've never pretended to be. But I have lived in my constituency for the past five years. (I won't technically be in the constituency any longer after boundary changes, but the layout of the new Bristol East means that where I am - Redcliffe - is actually more convenient for both ends of the constituency, as well as for all the meetings I have in the city centre. And it seemed a bit silly to move somewhere five minutes down the road just so I could still say "I live in my constituency." But you won't get me putting out leaflets during the campaign pretending otherwise).

Over the past five years as the MP for Bristol East I've handled hundreds of cases through my constituency office in St George, and responded to thousands of emails, letters and phone calls on local issues, or national issues which local people care passionately about. I've held surgeries, knocked on doors, accepted invitations to virtually every event I've been invited to, unless I really, really couldn't make it. I've visited schools, health centres, children's centres, care homes. I've met with business people, community groups, public sector workers, faith groups... And I've done something afterwards, whether it be collaring Ministers in the division lobby to bend their ear, or writing to the authorities, or lending my support in whatever way I'm asked. Most of this goes unreported, except on my website. In fact there's still a lot that doesn't make it onto there, either because it's confidential (virtually all casework), or would suffer from being made public, or because I just haven't got round to doing it. Perhaps not being from Bristol made a difference at the start, meant I had a bit of catching up to do... but it seems a bit silly to be playing the "I'm local" card against someone who has represented the area for the past five years.

P.S. Although I do know who Bill Shankly is - how could anyone brought up on John Peel not know? - I confess, I'd be hard pressed to name many Bristol City or Bristol Rovers players... might just Google it before the hustings start!

Working for the Clampdown

Yes, I know I've stolen the title of Paul Smith's blog, but he nicked the idea of using song titles from me, so we're evens.

Nice little piece in the Mail at the weekend about an email sent to Tory MPs and election candidates, telling them that all their online utterances must be cleared by CCHQ first. Tories simply can't be trusted to tweet.

There is, as we speak, a team of young Tobys, Tarquins and Taras at Tory HQ, under the supervision of a fanatical spinmeister, Toryquemada, scrutinising every draft tweet for signs of divergence from "The Line". This perhaps might explain why so few tweets from Tory politicians make it onto Twitter; they've all failed the Tory inquisition. One wonders quite what they're trying to hide?

Know Your Rights

Very quick post... I've basically been either too busy or too downright exhausted to blog; that's what three weeks of Bill committee and weekends of campaigning does to you. I don't think this should really have to be said, but seeing as if I don't say it, someone may well accuse me of believing otherwise....

Obviously when it comes to the prosecution of Members of Parliament, they should be treated on exactly the same basis as anyone else facing prosecution under the Theft Act, as AJ said at the weekend. Of course, parliamentary privilege has to be there to protect freedom of speech in parliament, otherwise we'd be landed with libel actions or injunctions left, right and centre, but it certainly shouldn't apply to criminal proceedings. I have no idea whether there is any legal basis for arguing otherwise, under the 1689 Bill of Rights, but I think it would be a travesty of justice if there was. Cameron is being his usual opportunistic self in trying to suggest that the Labour Party doesn't think so.

Incidentally, Cameron has also suggested that Gordon has been slow to act in suspending the three MPs from the party. That's how it works under the Labour Party constitution. If someone is charged with a criminal offence, they are placed under administrative suspension until the case is concluded. Disciplinary suspension is a different process, which can be used as an alternative to expulsion if wrongdoing is found; i.e. it's a response to proven wrongdoing, not just allegations of it. These rules apply across the board, so the MPs are being treated exactly the same as any local councillor would be. It would no doubt get all the right headlines if we were to expel them from the Party now, but it wouldn't be just to do so. (And note - these MPs have already been barred from standing at the next election, which is probably as close as the Party can and should get to expressing an opinion on their alleged actions without prejudging the outcome of their trial).

Thursday 4 February 2010

Teddy Picker

I'm afraid that my 'no issues' verdict from Sir Thomas Legg - i.e. being given a clean bill of health on expenses - may have rather disappointed people.

Someone posing as a journalist called the office today, seeking clarification about quarterly payments made from my Incidental Expenses Provision, i.e. the office costs allowance, to a company called CIT Vendor Finance. Well, I can exclusively reveal, before the budding Woodward/ Bernstein does, that this is the photocopier rental charge. (Hold the front page...!)

I dealt with this enquiry while I was in Bill committee this afternoon. My suspicions as to why anyone was interested in my office photocopier payments on today of all days, when there are so many more suitable subjects for media scrutiny, were confirmed when I got back to the office.

I've now discovered that the so-called media interest came from the "Centre for Open Politics". And yes, a quick Google search has revealed that it's exactly who I thought it was, or rather, someone calling herself Juliet acting on his behalf. (More here too.)

This person also told a left-wing blogsite this week that Eric Pickles has said it would be: “A very dirty election...."