Monday, 30 June 2008

Another turtle picture

One day I'm going to go diving somewhere like Oman and watch the baby turtles hatching on the beach.


Given that turtles are in the news today (and what a stroke of genius to name a turtle James!) I thought I'd take the opportunity to publicise the Marine Conservation Society's Adopt-a-Turtle campaign. I picked up a leaflet in Betterfoods in Bristol a couple of months ago, and have been meaning to sign up ever since. And today I have. I think that as an occasional diver I ought to be contributing something to marine conservation. And they are very cute.

Monday morning

I don't know who decided it was a good idea for me to attend a breakfast meeting tomorrow morning. I suppose it was me. So I'd better stop blogging.

The meeting is about the rise in global food prices and no, I'm not expecting to get fed.

There is also an Opposition day debate tomorrow evening on food security. (The second of two; the first one is on energy security). No doubt they will spend most of their allotted time explaining exactly what they would do about these issues if they were in power, rather than just banging on about how it is all the fault of the current Government. But I may be wrong on that.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The smoking ban one year on

I have decided that, in the face of the media witch hunt going on at the moment (and from looking at today's Sundays, I don't think there's any other word for it), I am going to have a daily 'good news' item. Again, this is from today's Observer, but I'll summarise some of it here.

Since the smoking ban was introduced, there has been a record rise in the number of people giving up smoking. The figures for April to December 2007 (only 9 months) were up 22% on the previous year. 80% of people think the ban is a good thing. And fears that more people would smoke at home instead haven't been realised. There is also good news about people with lung conditions now being able to socialise without harming their health, and a predicted fall in the number of heart attacks (as happened in Scotland after they introduced their ban).

As someone who voted for the full ban, this makes me feel good.

The report ends by saying that the ban contributed to the closure of 1,409 pubs in 2007, compared with just 216 in 2006. I'd like to see more evidence of this. Has the number of people drinking in pubs gone down since the ban? Or have they switched to pubs where it's easier to smoke outside? I know a few pubs have closed down recently in east Bristol; some have been empty for a while and locals are concerned they're going to be sold off to property developers and turned into flats. But they tend to be in areas which are already well-served by pubs, and I suspect there may just be too much competition for them all to make a profit.

Conservative Future

Also from today's Observer. It struck a chord as we see so many of these characters around Westminster. We have a little game when researchers get into the lift, of trying to guess who they work for (or rather, which party the MP is from) before checking out their passes. It's very easy to spot a Tory.

Travelling in style

From today's Observer. I wonder what the reaction would have been if the name 'Gordon Brown' had been substituted for any of the personages mentioned here?

Speeding up drugs decisions

This announcement might have by-passed a lot of people who aren't directly affected at the moment, but trust me, it's really good news. I'm handling quite a few NICE-related cases at the moment, and there is certainly a perception of a 'postcode lottery', which causes additional anxiety to people who are already having to cope with enough without having to fight NHS bureaucracy too.

All-Party Groups

Tomorrow I'm launching a new APPG. (That's All-Party Parliamentary Group). There are hundreds of APPGS, and most MPs, myself included, lose track of which ones we belong to. We're active in a handful, and silent supporters of the rest. Just to give a flavour of it - this week's Whip includes notices of meetings for:

- the Furniture Industry;
- Classics;
- Slimming World AND Weight Watchers;
- Sewers and Sewerage;
- Rugby Union;
- Rowing;
- Jazz Appreciation;
- Myodil;
- Praseg;
- War Grave and Battlefields Heritage;
- Town Centre Management;
- Betting and Gaming;
- Adventure and Recreation in Society;
- Youth Hostels.

Not to mention a whole host of country-related APPGs, including: France, Bolivia, Australia/ New Zealand, South Africa, Nepal, North Korea, Africa, Singapore, Palestine, Algeria, Israel... and they're just the ones that are meeting in July.

Perhaps the most bizarre is the APPG for Cheese, which has been set up by a Lib Dem MP. (It just would be, wouldn't it?) I have toyed with the idea of forming my own Cheezly APPG (one member - me), but then who would stand up for the needs of the Scheese lobby?

I wouldn't want to give the wrong impression. There is some excellent work being carried out by APPGs, particularly in the International Development field. There's an APPG on the Great Lakes region, and its most active members are incredibly well-informed on what's going on in the DRC and use every opportunity they can to raise it in the House. Some of the health APPGs are very good too.

The APPG I'm launching is on Credit Unions, and has a very specific remit - to push for new credit union legislation which will allow them to expand and enhance their services. It's been nearly 30 years since the last Credit Union Act.

I was approached to head up the new group, in part because of Bristol Credit Union's excellent reputation; it's seen as one of the best in the country. We've got Kitty Ussher, the Treasury Minister, coming along, and we're told she's going to make an announcement, so watch this space.

Sunday live

Watching Adam Boulton. He has just said that MPs get a huge amount of money going through their bank accounts, including their staffing allowances (which forms by far the largest part of our so-called 'expenses', about £100k p.a.). That is just plain wrong. We take on staff, tell the Fees Office how much we want to pay them, and that's the last of it. We don't have to claim each month for their salaries, we don't ever see that money - it gets paid straight to them. There's a debate this Thursday on MPs pay and allowances. I'll be in Bill Committee so will miss it, but the sooner we get this whole system sorted, the better. If Boulton can't get it right, no wonder the public are confused.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Try reading this blog instead...

I've not really looked at Chris Paul's Labour of Love blog much before, but it's pretty good and worth a look. And he's been banned from commenting on Guido Fawkes' site, so he must be doing something right.

Free Nelson Mandela

Have just been watching Amy Winehouse murdering 'Free Nelson Mandela' at his birthday concert in Hyde Park. She sounded like someone deliberately trying to sing badly to amuse her drunken friends at a karaoke night. Obviously she is a celebrity and all that, but as far as I know she hasn't a political bone in her body and wouldn't have remembered anything of the original campaign. By contrast, I actually found Eddy Grant's performance of 'Give me Hope Johanna' quite moving. It meant something to him.

I was going to go off on one about why they couldn't have just given Stan, who sang it originally with The Special AKA, another 15 minutes of fame. Thankfully I decided to Google him first, and found out exactly why. Oh dear.

I'm told Gordon was very good when he was being interviewed, but I missed that bit.

Scared of cycling

Me, that is. I can do parks and the cycle path, but negotiating Temple Way roundabout is completely beyond me. But given Bristol's new status as a cycling city, I have brought my bike out of (semi)retirement today.

First stop was to call in at Mud Dock on the way back from the Veterans Day event at the Ampitheatre and arrange for the punctures to be repaired. Impressed by my spur of the moment decisiveness, I popped home to get the bike, only to discover that the tyres were fine. Bemused at first, I then remembered I'd lent my flat to my sister and family a few weeks ago. Her partner is a cycling fanatic. He'd pumped up the tyres. One would have thought I'd have tried that first before assuming they had punctures. Surely?

So apologies to the guy at Mud Dock who is probably still wondering where I got to. And a plea for someone to sort out the cycle lane markings round Temple Way roundabout so that the likes of me can understand what we're meant to do and where we're meant to go. Until then, I'll stick to jumping off and pushing when I get to the difficult bits. (Also, can pedestrians in Castle Park please stay out of the cycle lanes? Thanks.)

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Cameron's worst week?

Six hours on the sofa and I can proudly report I'm down to 12 emails in my inbox, only one of which could conceivably be dealt with tonight. By way of light relief, here's a little something from Matthew Parris' column in today's Times:

The blow that wasn't
Brownites look away: what follows is directed only to Conservatives. Isn't it lovely, fellow Tories, after all these years, when media bias starts to work our way for a change? This month David Cameron has faced a serious and continuing sleaze row about his MEPs' expenses, dragging in both his (former) group leader and (former) group chief whip; his party chairman is under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; and a key aide in his London mayoral team has had to resign after a (silly) “race row”. Oh - and his Shadow Home Secretary has quit not just the front bench but his parliamentary seat.

But has the headline “Cameron's worst week ever” appeared anywhere? Have those telltale journalistic clichés “fresh blow”, “new setback”, “yet another”, “plunged deeper”, “reeling” or “hapless” surfaced in the newspapers?

Don't you think that what we like to call the news is really a kind of topiary? The raw data are a shapeless wild yew bush, which we clip into peacocks, pigs or palaces, according to mood.

New (possibly more interesting) poll on website

Was all geared up to go on CCTV cameras until today, but thought I'd do wind turbines instead. I know they're getting some more at Avonmouth, and isn't there going to be one on the roundabout in the middle of Cabot Circus? But what do you think - do we want them in the countryside around Bristol?

Some are more equal than others

Typical broad-minded and unbiased reporting of the new Equalities Bill on the front page of today's Daily Mail and Daily Express. The Express headline reads: "White men face jobs ban. New law favours ethnics and women." (Ethnics? Erm... I don't think you're actually meant to say that, are you?)

Anyway, it's not true. The new Bill will mean that a firm will be able to choose a woman over a man of equal ability - or vice versa - without falling foul of discrimination laws. If a managing director decides he/ she needs more women at board level, or if a headteacher decides that the school needs more male teachers, they'll be able to use positive discrimination to redress the imbalance. The Bill will also introduce compulsory pay audits for large firms and public bodies, to try to reduce the gender pay gap; something on which the unions have been campaigning for a long time. And age discrimination will be banned but Club 18-30 won't. Well that's a relief.

About the size of an average kiwi

When I left home this morning I certainly didn't expect to be doing a TV interview about EU regulations dictating the minimum permissable size of a kiwi fruit. But that's what this job is like. We're expected to be able to talk in an informed - or at least an opinionated - way about all manner of subjects at the drop of a hat.

So here's the story - a local fruit and veg wholesaler has been hauled up for importing 520 kiwis from Chile which were 4g below the required weight and so must not be sold or even given away. I thought at first this must be another one of those euro-myths so beloved of the tabloid press; where I used to work, at Britain in Europe, we published a whole pamplet's worth of them, called Straight Bananas (here's an extract). But it seems to be true, as the Rural Payments Agency have confirmed the story, saying that the consignment failed to meet EU grading rules.

A quick bit of research into these rules revealed that "to facilitate trade and increase the profitability of production, products are graded and subject to standards." Compliance checks are carried out at the marketing, rather than the production and packaging stage. In other words, the kiwis are flown halfway round the world before inspectors come in and object to their very existence.

As you might expect from my previous line of work, I'm probably more appreciative than most of the positive benefits of EU membership, including some of the rules relating to food production (e.g. animal welfare and food safety standards). But this is pretty ridiculous. Surely it's up to the customer to decide whether or not they want to buy a smaller than average kiwi fruit? (It's not beyond the realm of possibility that they might actually want a smaller one). And given rising food prices and the growing awareness of just how much food we waste every day in the developed world, it seems outrageous that people are employed to order grocers to throw away perfectly good food.

So I will be collaring Gareth Thomas the next chance I get. (He divides his time between being the DFID minister responsible for trade, and the DBERR minister for trade and consumer affairs, so I figure he must be the man to save small kiwis). According to news reports the European Commission said earlier this month it wanted to relax the rules which prevent misshapen or underweight fruit and veg being sold. And my research into grading rules said that special measures can be taken in the event of shortages or exceptional surpluses. So there's all to play for - victory can be ours!

A life of leisure

I can't remember the last time I arrived back in Bristol in daylight on a Thursday.

I usually get back just in time to channel hop between Question Time and Newsnight, end up staying up for that Andrew Neill programme, and always think why did I bother? But today we were on a one line whip, and after 90 minutes of Bill Committee, asking a couple of questions in the Chamber, meeting up with Worldvision, doing a quick TV interview on kiwi fruit (about which more later), dealing with most of my emails and signing some letters, I made it to Paddington for the 3 o'clock train. So I am now semi-horizontal on my sofa, with the french windows open and a cool breeze blowing in from the river, and nothing to do except update the website and blog. I appreciate this demonstrates a total lack of hinterland, as Denis Healey would put it, and that I should be taking the opportunity to visit an art gallery or museum, or play a musical instrument, or read Victorian poetry. I might just stretch to watching that Gok Wan programme* at 8pm although it is bound to be really annoying.

I have a theory about the name Denis/ Dennis - that Denis is the middle class, and Dennis the working class spelling of the name. So on the one hand you have Denis Healey, Denis Macshane, Denis Thatcher; on the other, Dennis Skinner, Dennis Wise, Dennis Waterman and Dirty Den. I am sure this theory could be demolished if subjected to the slightest degree of scrutiny, but I am sticking to it until convinced otherwise.

*I am now rather embarrassed at having mentioned this. Can I place on the record that I lasted all of 5 minutes and then switched over to the football.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Business in the House today

Sometimes Westminster is a bizarre place. We've just had FCO questions; weighty stuff on Burma, the Middle East and Zimbabwe. Followed by a backbencher reading out a poem about newts and talking about 'bucketloads of bat droppings'. (He's introducing a 10 Minute Rule Bill).

I did get quite excited when I saw the screens announcing the adjournment debate tonight, on "Open Window Composting". I thought this was a new concept, involving people chucking their tea bags, potato peel and banana skins down into the street, where they would fester and decompose, and everyone could help themselves to communal compost. On closer examination it turns out to be a debate on "Open Windrow Composting". I have no idea what that means.

Monday, 23 June 2008

A slight aftertaste of sawdust

At the risk of becoming something of a bore on this issue, there seems to be a real flurry of interest in the whole 'eat less meat and save the planet' debate. (Nice to have been ahead of the game for once in my life).

For those who missed it, here's John Harris' article from the Guardian: The new vegetarianism: meat is more murderous than ever. And the debate continues in this Sunday's Observer food supplement: Is meat off the menu?

The Observer also had a feature on their restaurant critic Jay Rayner trying to go vegan for a week - Eats leaves and shoots... himself. He says "I also don't believe you can be genuinely happy and vegan. I think the two are mutually exclusive." Hmmm... The article is complete nonsense by the way. In my humble opinion.

Boris woos the BME vote

Or not. He's got off to a good start, hasn't he?

First he decides that the Rise festival should no longer be an anti-racism festival and now he's had to dissociate himself from an aide who has told black people from the Caribbean to 'go home' if they don't like living in London. Is anyone really surprised?

Saturday, 21 June 2008

A hypothetical question

I'm going to pose a hypothetical question, prompted by an encounter I had with someone earlier today.

Hillary Clinton had a bit of a rough ride during the Democratic primaries; Barrack Obama will no doubt have a rough ride during the presidential campaign. Leave aside for the moment the flak they've attracted because of their gender and their race, and some of the dubious attacks whuch purport to be about something else. but really do come back to those two factors. I'm talking just about the usual political cut-and-thrust: the attacks on their policies, their performance, their campaigns, their connections.

It's not inconceivable - in fact it's fairly likely - that some who look to Clinton and Obama as role models might be detered from entering public life because of what they've seen them go through over the past few months: the sheer intensity of the scrutiny, the relentlessness of being called to account, or being asked to defend what appear on the surface to be questionable decisions or dubious behaviour. And of course we want more women and more people from ethnic minority communities to come forward as candidates and play a role in public life. But that can't possibly be a reason to go soft on Clinton and Obama, can it? If they're running for office, they have to be judged by the same ethical standards as any WASP male, surely?

Minister of the Year

Congratulations to Minister for Europe, Jim Murphy, for winning the House magazine's Minister of the Year award last week. Well deserved for the hours - no, make that weeks, if not months - he spent steering the Lisbon Treaty through the Commons and fending off the more rabid Tory euro-sceptics with good humour and grace, despite the fact that some of them made the same speech night after night after night.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Chocolate soya milk

My local shop has started stocking chocolate soya milk. This puts me under almost a moral obligation to buy it. It's a vegan thing: you feel (a) as if they're doing it entirely for your benefit so you have to show your appreciation and (b) if you don't buy it, they'll stop selling it, and the world will be less vegan as a result. And it tastes good.

More on teenage pregnancies

On the abortion/ under-16s issue, Hopi Sen actually puts it much better than me. But then he probably hasn't had the kind of week I've had, and doesn't have to worry about ending up on the front page of the Daily Mail. Or maybe he's just more intellectual than me. (I think that's probably it.)

Visit to Millpond School

Had a really, really enjoyable meeting this morning with Year 6 pupils from Millpond School. I don't think I've ever met a bunch of kids who were so interested, so keen to ask questions - there were hands going up all over the place. I stayed for 90 minutes, and they still hadn't run out of things to say. Sometimes - usually with teenagers! - it's difficult to get much out of them and the teachers ended up asking all the questions, but these kids were great.

A lot of the questions were about what politicians could do to stop people smoking, drinking, dropping rubbish, carrying knives, carrying guns, etc, including this: "If smoking kills, as it says on cigarette packets, why isn't it illegal?" Good point!

We got into quite a debate about how laws can be passed to stop people doing things, and how this will mean that the majority of people comply - e.g. when seatbelts were made compulsory, most people starting buckling up. Then there's the issue of enforcement; some people will comply only if they think they're going to get caught. But the police have to prioritise what they do, so can't always be there to stop them. And then there's social pressure, when things like smoking in public places and drink driving becoming increasingly unacceptable.

When it came to talking about litter, I told them a couple of anecdotes. The first was when I was driving out towards Avonmouth one evening, stuck in traffic behind a minibus. The back doors of the minibus opened, and a carrier bag full of rubbish was dropped bang in the middle of the dual carriageway. And then they drove off. Then a couple of weeks ago, I was in traffic in London; the passenger door of the car in front opened, and a Wagamama bag, presumably full of leftovers, was again deposited on the highway. We've all seen people throw cans and crisp packets out of car windows, but I've never seen anything quite so blatant before. (And don't you kind of assume that people who buy takeaways from Wagamama wouldn't be the sort to dump rubbish in the road?)

The pupils looked suitably horrified when I told them about this. They were also really keen to tell me what they'd learned in lessons about the environment, and to discuss what could be done to encourage people to do more to tackle climate change; I told them the most important thing they could do was to evangelise about these issues to their parents, grandparents and anyone else they could win over. When they're not busy nagging their parents about smoking and drinking and walking to work, that is.

I'd say they were the brightest, best bunch of 10 year olds I've ever met. They've promised to write to me, and to have a look at my website. I really hope that in years to come I bump into some of them again, as they make their way through secondary school. And I hope they stay just as enthusiastic and passionate about the issues we discussed.

Abortions rise for under-16s

I'm intrigued by reports in today's papers of a 10% increase in abortions for under-16s. This is seen as a sign that the Government's strategy to cut teenage pregancies has failed. But none of the reports mention how many teenagers gave birth during the same period. So couldn't the stats just mean that more under-16s are opting for terminations rather than choosing to give birth? (The Guardian quotes someone as saying that the under-18 pregnancy rate - which presumably includes all pregnancies, whether they end in terminations, miscarriages or births - has fallen to its lowest level for 20 years, but implies that this isn't true for under-16s, 'though no stats are given).

This reminds me of one of the chapters in 'Freakonomics', on the perceived success of 'zero tolerance' policing in New York in the 1990s, which is generally seen to have triggered a massive drop in the crime rate. The book suggests instead that the real reason was the the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe-v-Wade in 1973, which, in legalising abortion, meant that far fewer unwanted babies were born in the sort of circumstances that might later lead them into a life of crime. An interesting issue for the anti-abortion lobby to grapple with.

As for me, yes of course I find it disturbing that 163 girls under the age of 14 had abortions last year, and 1,008 14 year olds. But isn't that preferable to them becoming mothers at such a young age?

The more positive element in these statistics is confirmation that the vast majority of abortions take place at a very early stage of pregnancy - 70% within 3 to 9 weeks, and a further 20% within 10 to 12 weeks. I suppose some people could argue that the easy availability of early terminations could encourage women to treat it as a form of contraception, but again, still better than lots of unwanted babies being born to girls who are too young to cope. And I really don't believe that women have unprotected sex thinking, well I can always have an abortion if the gamble doesn't pay off.

On a related point, I had a very moving email from a constituent recently, who'd had a late termination because the baby was found to have very severe abnormalities. Obviously I'm going to keep her details confidential - but I wish some of those who campaigned so vociferously for the time limit to be cut to 20 weeks could read her very personal account of the agonisingly difficult decision she'd had to make, terminating a pregnancy she had very much wanted.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Like punk never happened

I'm now watching the Sex Pistols performing 'Pretty Vacant' at the Isle of Wight Festival. A few years ago when they first reformed some friends and I - all just that little bit too young to see them live first time round - went to see them at Crystal Palace. We knew it was going to be awful, but it kind of had to be done. What I'm watching now is even worse.

Child poverty debate

I took part in a three hour Westminster Hall debate this afternoon on the Work and Pensions Select Committee's report on Deprivation and Child Poverty. Not a bad turnout considering we've been on a one line whip for the past two days.

It's always difficult to know at the time of speaking whether you're actually getting across the point you were trying to make, but seeing as the speakers who'd gone before me had all spent quite some time on the detail of tackling child poverty ('better off in work' calculations, take up of child care tax credits, measuring relative poverty cf. material deprivation, etc, etc) I tried to venture into slightly different territory. I'd probably end up reproducing the entire fifteen minute speech if I tried to explain myself here, but one of the points I made in passing was how it seems to me that the media these days increasingly celebrates or commodifies dysfunctionality - from the obsessive spotlight on the day-to-day disintegration of the lives of young women such as Kerry Katona and Britney Spears, to daytime TV which make entertainment out of dysfunctional, and often violent or abusive, relationships.

The element of the daytime TV shows I most detest is when they carry out DNA tests to determine - in front of millions of TV viewers - who is a child's real father. Not only is it often exploiting the vulnerability of the women in question, but what about the future impact on the child? OK, they're too young to know what's going on, but you can bet that people in their neighbourhood will all be avidly watching, and by the time the child starts school half the kids in his class will know that he was fathered during a one night stand with his mother's best friend's drunken stepfather and that she only kept the child in the hope that the real father was someone completely different (or whatever).

This has to be fundamentally wrong, don't you think?

I'm not sure how you can stop it. You can't legislate against parents publicly embarrassing their offspring. (If only you could - that would be a topic for a 10 Minute Rule Bill!) But I think broadcasters should show some responsibility. Just because some people are prepared to go on TV and air every last detail of their lives in public, it doesn't mean TV producers have to give them the opportunity to do so.

Women and children first

On Question Time at the moment they're debating whether women should be allowed to serve on the frontline in places like Afghanistan. I can't see that gender comes into it; women are quite capable of deciding whether they want to serve in the armed forces, and if they make that decision I don't see why they should be treated any differently to men who have signed up. Obviously in some scenarios physical strength might have some bearing; but then that would be about strength and size, not about gender.

In the same way I always get a little annoyed by the phrase 'women and children first', with its implication that women are in greater need of protection than men. I am, however, entirely in favour of putting children first - and I think that should apply to the army too. Soldiers aren't allowed to take part in military operations until they reach the age of 18, but you can sign up at 16 with a parent's consent. It just seems far too young to me.

When is a bomber not a bomber?

When he's not actually bombed anyone or anything? And when he's only been charged but not convicted of terrorism-related offences?

I've been altered to a recent blog entry by the Conservative candidate for Bristol North West.
She says: "You probably, like me, gaped when you found out that First Bus has charged Avon and Somerset Police £125,000 - yes, £125 GRAND, for CCTV footage to help investigate the case of Andrew Ibrahim, the Bristol Bomber."

So much for Conservative support for civil liberties. Leaving aside whether he could, even if convicted, be accurately described as 'a bomber', whatever happened to the concept of innocent until proven guilty?

Bristol becomes a cycling city

Good news that Bristol is to become the UK's first cycling city. I think the extra money could make a real difference, particularly the bike rental scheme, and the proposals to provide free bikes to people in deprived areas. If people are able to rent bikes they'll be more likely to use them for exercise and leisure trips, even if they can't fit cycling into their daily schedule. And I'm sure there are plenty of people in the areas surrounding Bristol city centre who would be prepared to cycle to work if bikes and facilities were made available - and, of course, if we can established a better network of well-marked and safe cycle lanes.

Congratulations are due to Sustrans and the City Council for their work in promoting cycling in the city. I know Rosie Winterton, the Transport Minister, has been impressed by what she has seen on her visits to Bristol, and when I've told her about the number of people who turned out to support the campaign to protect the cycle path.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Get voting!

On the subject of schools, I'm somewhat surprised by what appears to be an almost total lack of interest in the poll on my website on how we can raise school standards in Bristol. The website is getting more than 2000 hits some days (and they can't all be my mother) but no-one is voting. My theories are (a) most of the people who look at the website aren't from Bristol, or (b) people only vote when it's a for or against poll, i.e. a battle to be won, or (c) people have been given too many choices and can't decide what answer to opt for. (The last poll, which had five options too, didn't attract that much attention either). I know the polls are unscientific, but I am genuinely interested in the results. I think the next one will have to be something more controversial...

Stealth learning

I suppose there's a pretty good chance that those of you who read the Guardian don't always read Tuesday's Education supplement. This week's featured the Assistant Head of Ashton Park school in Bristol talking about a programme called Enquiring Minds, developed by Futurelab, which aims to encourage pupils to develop a more questioning approach to their studies and to work independently. It's something I've seen in action on a smaller, informal scale in the Bristol schools in my constituency, and I think it's fascinating. The idea is that the teacher acts as a facilitator, but it's the children who decide on an issue they're interested in, and have to motivate themselves to develop a project and explore it in detail.

The feature doesn't seem to be online - perhaps because it was a supplement to the supplement (it's entitled 'stealth learning') - but it's worth digging out of the recycling bin.

A near miss

I liked this anecdote from Tom Harris' blog:

'Yesterday, while waiting for my ministerial driver, Bob, to pick me up at Members’ Entrance, I spied DD and a journalist chatting in the middle of New Palace Yard. Bob had to swerve to avoid hitting him. “Watch out, David,” I called. “We don’t want any pointless by-elections, do we?”'

The Tories want to hear your views

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservatives' Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion, is coming to Bristol East on June 20th, 6pm-7.30pm, at the Black Development Agency. It's billed as the Conservatives 'wanting to hear your views'. So presumably if anyone wants to ask her about suggestions that she might be just a little bit homophobic, then they'd be very welcome.

As a Tory PPC in the 2005 General Election, the allegation is that she distributed leaflets in the Muslim areas of the seat she was fighting, saying that "Labour has scrapped section 28 which was introduced by the Conservatives to stop schools promoting alternative sexual lifestyles such as homosexuality to children as young as seven years old. Schools are allowed and do promote homosexuality and other alternative sexual lifestyles to your children. Labour reduced the age of consent for homosexuality from 18 to 16 allowing school children to be propositioned for homosexual relationships." In the white areas of the constituency - which has, I think, the highest BNP vote in the country - she is said to have distributed anti-immigration leaflets.

Obviously this is quite a topical issue in east Bristol, with the recent controversy when parents objected to certain books being used for anti-homophobic bullying lessons in a couple of schools. Would be interesting also to know how she thinks her views square with David Davis' mission to protect civil liberties - although of course in his case, that doesn't extend to gay or lesbian people either.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Pole-dancing in Parliament Square

Not content with chasing the dragon, another might-be-open-to-misinterpretation event for MPs is taking place tomorrow.

Object - which previously led a campaign against magazines such as Nuts and Zoo being on display within reach of children in newsagents - is supporting my Labour colleague Roberta Blackman Woods' 10 Minute Rule Bill calling for better licensing of lap-dancing clubs. Apparently due to a legal loophole such venues fall under a ‘one size fits all’ licensing category also used for cafes, restaurants and karaoke bars.

To publicise the cause Object is setting up what they describe as "a café/strip club installation "in Parliament Square, and have invited MPs along. Not sure whether this is an invitation to spectate or participate!

Chasing dragons

I have just been invited to take part in the "MP Chase the Dragon Challenge", which is being promoted by the Fitness Industry Association Ltd. Hmmm.... (as I am wont to say these days).

Monday, 16 June 2008

U-turn if you want to...

Bit of a bust-up on Facebook amongst Lib Dems about their (subject to review) policy on tuition fees. We await the policy paper with interest... In the meantime here's a plea from Stephen Williams, who, as Higher Education spokesperson for the Lib Dems, is chairing the review:

"Please would people not take up firm stances and battle lines when they can't possibly have a read a policy paper that isn't even written yet!!The system of student and university finance has changed many times since our last policy review and the 2005 manifesto. At the very least we need to update our position or look ridiculously out of touch." Hmmm...

Green uses for waste

It is so cold in my Westminster office I've had to put my coat on. The air-conditioning is on full blast. In winter they put the heating on so high, I have to open the windows. And yes, I have asked for it to be turned off, but of course it's not as easy as that.

On a (tenuously) related note, I've been asked if I'll include a link to this site on my main website, which I will do. I have a friend I call Stig (as in... 'of the Dump') as he refuses to throw anything out and is always coming up with ingenious uses for old clothes hangers and jam jars. He would love it.

Interesting job advert

From the Working for an MP website. Far more fun than interning in Parliament.

Saturday, 14 June 2008


Charlotte Leslie, the Tory candidate for Bristol North West, likes to appear 'down with the kids'. In the BEP, writing about post offices, she accused the Labour Government's response of being like Vicky Pollard, i.e. "Am I bovvered?" On her blog she seems to have remembered - or been reminded - it's Catherine Tate's Lauren.

More importantly, she also says that the Conservatives have pledged to match Labour's subsidy of the post office network, which is news to me. Certainly Alan Duncan didn't seem to be saying that in the recent(ish) Opposition Day debate.

Here's Roger Berry MP's characteristically sensible take on the issue. As for what's going in east Bristol, the consultation has now closed and the Post Office has confirmed it plans to go ahead with the proposed closures. As I've said before, my main concern was the impact of the closure of Broomhill Road; I've written to the Post Office and the Co-op, which has a store just across the road, asking if they would be prepared to at least consider the viability of an in-store post office service, but haven't heard back. Time to chase!

Public Service Announcement

Just for the vegan(s) amongst you. Booja Booja, makers of extremely delicious (though rather pricey) vegan truffles, have now moved into the ice-cream market. Fresh and Wild in Bristol has three flavours: chocolate, ginger and maple pecan. These things are important.

David Davis - bored with it already?

There was a Telegraph journalist reviewing the papers on Sky News this morning. He said that when he first heard the DD announcement, he thought 'I must be missing something very clever here'. Since then he'd been trying to work out the method in the madness. He's now given up.

DD's good friend, journalist and former Tory MP Michael Brown has more or less been saying the same thing - he's confessed that despite their close friendship, DD hadn't run the idea past him first - because he knew he'd have tried to talk him out of it.

I'm beginning to think it will be a bit of a damp squib. He'll get re-elected with a reduced majority, on a greatly reduced turnout; the Sun will have some fun at his expense; and the point will be???

Spotted in the small print...

... of the Queen's Birthday Honours List. A knighthood for Moir Lockheed, Chief Exec of First Group, for "services to public transport". Hmmm....

And a well-deserved OBE for John Grimshaw from Sustrans, to add to his MBE.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Tony Benn back in Bristol

Went to the Watershed tonight for the showing of a film about Tony Benn's life, which was followed by a Q and A with the man himself. The film is being shown this Sunday and next, on ITV I think. There are several recognisable scenes in the film; Tony was of course MP for Bristol South East for something like 33 years, and there is footage of him outside the St George Labour Club, where I now have my office. (I have to say, it looked a lot smarter in those days!)

Tony as usual had some entertaining anecdotes at his disposal. He told the story of how someone wrote to him after the Russians had first landed a vehicle on the moon - so presumably some 40 years ago or more - saying: "Now that the Russians can put a car on the moon, any chance of sorting out the bus service in Bristol?" I assume the answer was No!

Ireland votes No

I haven't seen much news coverage today -been out and about in the constituency all day. So I'm only now seeing reports of the No vote in Ireland. I guess it means some elements of the treaty have to be renegotiated, but how on earth do they work out which bits people objected to? In news reports yesterday there were posters urging people to vote No, or the EU would compulsorily micro-chip their children (pretty certain that's not actually in the Treaty...) When you have people voting No from the left, from the right, from an informed, from a completely uninformed stance - how on earth do you evaluate that response?

Another plea for techy help

I think I've worked out that the difference in the appearance of some of these posts depends on which computer I'm using. Westminster PC = single spacing; laptops = double spacing. This is very annoying and if anyone can explain how I can make them all single spacing (which I think looks rather neater) please let me know.

So who's next?

Had a chat with a tame Tory before leaving Westminster tonight. It does seem that DD really is off on 'a frolic of his own' as we lawyers would put it, and that the other David is not at all happy about it.

Presumably those Tories who are now praising DD's bold and principled decision will soon be following suit and announcing their own by-elections?

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The real reason for David Davis' resignation

No, I have absolutely no idea what he's playing at.

I can however report that the universal reaction at Westminster when the news broke was that it must be David "TC" Davies, the newish MP for Monmouth, who is widely regarded as being more than a little loopy. (The one with the Land of Hope and Glory ringtone). In fact I was at a reception at No. 10 last night, talking to Hamish Sandison, who is standing against TC in Monmouth at the next election. Hamish manages to pull off the admirable feat of being a very English-sounding barrister with a very Scottish name who lives in Wales: in Monmouth, in fact. He was telling me it was pure joy standing against TC because he does and says so many mad things.

Anyway, it turns out not to be TC but his rather more famous namesake. "Without an e" as he's known. (Speaking of which, who can forget his leadership campaign, with the two young women in extra tight "It's DD for me" T-shirts?). My suspicions and opinions at this stage are as follows:

- Either David Cameron is in on the whole thing, but the plan is to distance himself from it, just in case it backfires; or DD has forced David Cameron into it, which is a totally bizarre state of affairs. Nick Robinson has just said on BBC News that Cameron's description of it as "a courageous personal decision" is code for "bonkers".

- I don't think the fact that the Lib Dems have been squared off, and agreed not to stand in a by-election they could potentially win, is a good move on their part - I thought their line was that they were the true defenders of civil liberties, and the Tories were only playing party politics on these issues? Seems weird to cede the ground of defender of civil liberties to David Davis of all people. If they'd refused to take part because it's all an ego-driven stunt, then I'd entirely endorse that - I'm leaning towards the view that Labour should do that too. Why play his games?

- The result of any by-election will be completely irrelevant to the 42 days question. Opinion polls show that a majority of the public are in favour of 42 days, with appropriate safeguards. I would imagine that in a safe(ish) Tory seat, there would be an even bigger majority in favour. DD faces a real danger that Tory voters in his seat won't see the point of turning out - or could even vote UKIP or BNP in protest. If he gets re-elected it will probably be with a greater percentage majority, as the Lib Dems aren't standing, but with a greatly reduced turnout. What does that prove?

- And on a cautionary note, I would just say one word - Winchester.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

I think I got this from Popbitch

Bus routes get the Royal treatment...

Several years ago the Sultanate of Oman spent a great deal of money building hundreds of bus stops across the country. They are all beautifully built with crenellations on the top. To date however, the country has no public buses.

New poll on website

A topical issue.... school standards, and what can be done to improve them?

This comes at a time when Bristol City Council is reviewing primary school structures, with suggested amalgamations of infant and junior schools so that all schools are primaries, from reception through to age 11; the federation of some primary schools (as happens in the secondary sector with, for example, John Cabot CTC providing executive leadership for Bristol Brunel Academy); and the closure of some of the smallest schools. The area of my constituency most affected by this is Stockwood, with the suggested closure of Stockwood Green school - which is lovely, but tiny - and the federation of Waycroft and Burnbush. Elsewhere infant and junior schools such as Air Balloon, Summerhill and Broomhill, to name just a few, are earmarked to become primaries.

Nationally, the Government has signalled that it is not prepared to accept below par results from secondary schools, with the launch of its National Challenge to raise results in English and Maths. At the moment, schools such as Brislington, Whitefields and the City Academy would be caught by the Government's proposals: last year the figures for pupils getting 5 GCSEs, including English and Maths, at Grades A-C were 29% for Whitefields; 26% for BEC and 21% for the Academy. (In the Academy's defence, it should be noted that the overall proportion of pupils getting 5 GCSEs - i.e. in any subjects - has been around the 50% mark for the last few years, which is above the Bristol average. And it does have a particularly challenging intake to work with; on contextual value added scores, it's one of the best schools in the country.) But I'm glad the Government has announced extra money to help tackle this.

In the Government's Children’s Plan, it says that by 2020 at least 90 per cent of children will achieve the equivalent of five higher level GCSEs by age 19. I think the idea of requiring children to try and try again until they reach the required standard is a good one - as I think used to happen with the old School Certificate, although I am basing that entirely on my reading of Enid Blyton books during a misspent childhood! I know some people (by which I mostly mean Tories) argue that some children simply aren't academic, and if they don't thrive at school they should be allowed to leave early and go down the pit or up a chimney or whatever. But basic literacy and numeracy skills are so important, I don't think we can allow that to happen. What if someone leaves school without qualifications, goes into a labouring job, but suffers an industrial accident a few years later, which means they can't do manual work anymore? Are they going to spend four decades of their life on incapacity benefit? (OK, they could retrain as adults, but it's a difficult transition for many people to make. We should be ensuring that our education system equips young people for whatever life may throw at them).

Am going to try to collar the Schools Minister, Jim Knight, during the Terrorism Bill votes tonight, to discuss further. In the meantime - start voting!

Cycle path latest

Someone asked me - via a new comment on an old post - for an update on what's happening with the cycle path. I haven't had a chance to discuss it with councillors recently; this, from the Evening Post, is the latest I've heard. Will follow up with Mark soon, to find out where discussions are within the West of England Partnership regarding alternative routes.

Pig in boots

I am going to blog about some serious issues later today, but in the meantime, here's some news from Yorkshire.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Nanny state revisited

Peter Spencer has just been on again - this time he compared Ms Spelman's alleged transgressions to "going through traffic lights a bit dodgily and finding a camera on you". I think he also said it was a bit unfair on her, and may have used the phrase 'not a hanging offence'. I was just waiting for him to describe it as a 'whoops-a-daisy' moment (© Giles Chicester MEP).

So, for the benefit of Mr Spencer, let's clarify what's under discussion here. Either the 'nanny' was legitimately employed as a constituency secretary, and was paid out of public funds purely and solely for doing such secretarial work - in which case, nothing dodgy, nothing wrong, case closed. Or she was paid out of public funds for looking after Ms Spelman's children. Which is undeniably dodgy and wrong and not allowed under parliamentary rules.

I would actually have some sympathy for Ms Spelman if she'd occasionally had to dump the kids on her office staff because the nanny was running late or if she'd suddenly had an emergency crop up. Kids sat in the corner with their colouring books while the staff get on with office work; probably happens every now and again in Westminster, hence many MPs' calls for a parliamentary creche. (At certain crucial votes there's often a kind of pass the parcel in the Government whips' office, as the mothers race through the division lobbies and then run back to retrieve their babies so that the 'babysitters' can vote, which can get pretty ridiculous).

We'll see what the parliamentary standards commissioner has to say.

Another example of the nanny state?

I couldn't believe what Peter Spencer, Sky's political correspondent, said on an earlier bulletin about Caroline Spelman. I paraphrase, but only slightly - he said that while what Spelman is alleged to have done was 'a bit worse than leaving the house without plumping the cushions', it wasn't 'as if she had actually trashed the house'. Let's get this clear - it's alleged she used public funds to pay her nanny's wages. The nanny herself, on Newsnight, said that she had answered one or two phone calls from MPs, but basically, she did 'nannying'. (Spelman says the 'nanny' did secretarial work during the day.) If the allegations are upheld, then it's very serious - and not in any way comparable with plumping or not plumping cushions. Someone else on Sky was obviously equally unimpressed by the acuity of Spencer's political analysis, as they've stopped running that segment now.

P.S. Come on James! Leap to your Party Chairman's defence!

Friday, 6 June 2008

Obama - the future and the past?

For all the talk of Barack Obama heralding an era of change in American politics, for me a large part of his appeal is the fact that he looks like he could easily have been around in the 1960s, in the days of the civil rights movement. You could quite easily put him next to Marvin Gaye on American Bandstand, or with Sam Cooke jamming with Cassius Clay (this is such classic footage) or alongside Martin Luther King marching on Washington. Not only does this just make him look a hell of a lot cooler than his political peers, but he also evokes memories of a more innocent, more idealistic time, when it was clear that political action could and did change things; that there were things worth fighting for. I really hope he can live up to expectations.

Thursday, 5 June 2008


Interesting item on tonight's Channel 4 news about the Tories' announcement that they intend to criminalise khat if they get into power. I've heard some persuasive arguments from Somali constituents in support of a ban, although opinion is divided. Not sure I agree with Brian Iddon MP, who is I think chair of the All-Party Group on Drug Misuse, and who said on tonight's programme that if khat was criminalised it would just create an illegal trade, with the crime associated with cross-border smuggling. I can't quite see how khat could be smuggled, or at least not on an economically viable basis - according to the footage tonight, you need to consume the equivalent of a small houseplant to get high. Will see what people in Bristol have to say.


Assuming I'm revving on at least two cylinders by Saturday, I've got a busy day. First port of call is Get Knitted in Brislington village for a Save the Children knitting session. (I've had one lesson so might just avoid total humiliation although I think it's extremely unlikely that anything resembling a hat will emerge from my efforts). Then I'm speaking at an Oxfam event, Sisters on the Planet, at the Bristol Festival of Nature.

And then I'm off to this. In fact I'm on the guest list. Sad, I know.

Knife crime

Ended up in the Chamber today as PPS cover to a colleague who was welcoming the Queen on a visit to his constituency - which I suppose is a reasonably good excuse to miss a debate.

It was a topical debate on knife crime, and for the most part consisted of intelligent and thoughtful contributions, for example, raising the links between knife attacks and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, mental health problems, stalking and personality disorders.

But of course the biggest concern at the moment is 'youth on youth' knife crime, which the Prime Minister addressed in his statement today. Some, but not all of this is gang-related. Sometimes - which tends to grab the headlines - it involves innocent bystanders, in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suspect that most frequently, however, it involves young lads who get caught up on the peripherary of dangerous activities - sucked into it by a mixture of bravado, the perceived need to protect themselves against attack, and the street culture of the neighbourhoods in which they live.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I've had my (nearly) 15 year old nephew doing work experience with me, and staying with me at my south London flat for a couple of weeks - which is only a few hundred yards from where the latest stabbing victim, Arsema Dawit, was attacked.

He's a sensible lad, quite street wise. He also happens to be mixed race, and dresses in fairly typical street style. I have to admit, I was more than a little worried about letting him walk home by himself through the south London streets, even though it was always broad daylight, with plenty of people about. Far more worried than I'd be about me walking home alone after a late night vote, when there are more than a few strange people around. And more worried than I'd have been if it was his 16 year old female cousin. I know that my fears were exaggerated, and the chances of him becoming yet another victim of knife crime were fairly miniscule - but I am glad the Prime Minister has signalled he wants to take tougher action on this issue. Even one teenage victim is one too many. I can only imagine what Arsema Dawit's family are going through at the moment.

Back - sort of...

It wasn't my intention to stop blogging over the past week or so, but as less than 48 hours ago I was attached to a drip in a Jordanian hospital and not allowed to board a plane, I hope you can understand why. The Bangladesh visit was very interesting - especially the microfinance projects involving rural women - as was the hospital ceiling in Amman. I now expect to be innundated with messages of support from concerned constituents, not to mention another embarrassing comment from my mum.