Thursday, 29 October 2009

Half man, half biscuit

I'm perhaps a bit slow off the mark on this one, but so were MumsNet who have now revealed the shocking truth behind the Prime Minister's failure to answer That Biscuit Question, which has been cited by all and sundry as evidence that Gordon can't make up his mind about anything, including Cameron at PMQs who sneered that the Prime Minister "sits in his bunker and can't even decide what biscuits he wants to eat".

And the truth is.... no-one asked Gordon. Someone at MumsNet filtered the questions and they ignored the biscuit ones.

This is obviously shocking in itself. Just who was this Carter Ruck of the MumsNet world denying British mums their fundamental human right to know exactly what the Prime Minister of this country chooses to consume in his teabreaks? What gross infringement of our civil liberties has been perpetrated by this NuMum monster? Where is Shami Chakrabati when the mums of this nation need her?

What amused me though, is that MumsNet's Malcolm Tucker said they'd not put the biscuit question to the Prime Minister because they didn't want to waste his time on such trivial matters. He is the Prime Minister after all. "We were conscious of not merely focusing on frivolities. Fun as biscuits are, access to the Prime Minister is precious and we would have hated to waste time on Rich Tea fingers at the expense of miscarriage or the school starting age."

But they asked Cameron (oatcakes*) and Clegg (Rich Tea**). Hmmm....

* They're not biscuits

** Goes soggy when dunked in something hot

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A "lunatic consensus" amongst Tory bloggers

This has been linked and re-tweeted a fair bit today, but in case anyone hasn't seen it, a tidy piece of analysis of the views on climate change expressed by the top ten Tory bloggers. Tory Central Office will no doubt say that they aren't representative of the views of the leadership and the parliamentary party, in which case perhaps the CCO control freaks need to loosen the reins a little and let their front-benchers go online?

Cycling go slow

Confirmation that Cllr Jon Rogers is all talk and no action? Come on Jon - get a move on!

Vote early, vote often

Lifted entirely from the BEP website....

A Bristol organisation working with children in Zambia and the UK through a visual arts exchange is appealing for help to win free flights. Creative Kids International (CKI) was founded in March last year by Mia Harris and Sian Lamprey, and they have been shortlisted in the final round of the British Airways Great Britons programme to win free flights. If they win, they will use the flights to work with Barefeet Theatre and schools in Lusaka.

The Great Britons programme includes an online competition for free flights to people who want to develop their interests. Voting closes at noon on Tuesday, November 3. To vote for Mia and Sian visit

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Light pollution

I've been contacted by the Cardiff Astronomical Society, which is campaigning against light pollution and have suggested I might want to start a similar campaign going in Bristol. What do people think? Their petition is here:

On a related point, it's Blackout Bristol this coming weekend. Nominations anyone?

Great apes

The Guardian's piece on Lord Stern's comments about climate change also raises the current controversy over palm oil production. I am proud to report I purchased orangutan-friendly black pepper oatcakes this morning, which are made with olive oil rather than palm oil like most oatcakes. Now we need David "oatcakes are my favourite biscuits"* Cameron to confirm likewise.

*They're not biscuits.

Speaking of apes, the adorable and fluffy AA Gill has upset people by revealing he shot a baboon on safari in Africa "to see what it would feel like to shoot a person". This gives me not only the opportunity to re-use my favourite holiday snap, taken in Victoria Falls a couple of years ago and previously used to illustrate a particularly insightful blog post on men sitting with their legs apart on trains...

... but also to draw attention to the fact that the delightful Mr Gill also confirmed what we all know, that arguments in defence of fox-hunting are just spurious efforts to justify bloodsports: "The feeble argument of culling and control is much the same as for foxes: a veil for naughty fun." While Mr Cameron is answering my question about oatcakes, perhaps he could also reveal how many live animals he's shot and killed for sport?

Children of prisoners

Almost a year ago, in the days when I could, I had a Westminster Hall debate on 'The Children of Prisoners'. It is therefore rather gratifying to see the new Barnardo's report on the issue, 'Every Night You Cry', being covered on BBC 24 this morning and Dawn Primarolo, the Children's Minister, admitting that we should have done more to support these 'invisible' children. I've got a copy of the Barnardo's South West report, which looks at 15 local case studies; will be reading it when I get into the office. 7% of children will experience having a parent in prison; 160,000 at any time - and yet it registers on the radar of very few local authorities.

A familiar theme

I refer honourable readers to blogs I have made earlier.... but here's an update on the good old Save the Cows, Save the Planet argument - front page of the Times no less. I'd love to know if anyone out there actually has... (given up meat to save the planet I mean).

And here's a link to the debate I called on it earlier this year, if anyone's interested.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Just arrived at Paddington....

Going to be a long day today... early start to do R5 Live (see below) and then back at the flat, was just tidying up, packing my suitcase for the week ahead and wondering why I could still make the 10.30am train if I got my skates on, when the phone rang. It was Alison Seabeck, Chair of the South West Regional Committee, telling me that all the trains had been cancelled because of a fatality at Reading, so she couldn't get to Bristol for the 10.30am start of the Select Committee hearing and seeing as I wouldn't be able to get to London, could I sub for her? Technically I'm still a member of the Committee although I was meant to come off it when I was appointed a whip, and as it's technically still a standing committee rather than a Select Committee (because you can't set up a new Select Committee till the start of the new parliamentary session) I am technically allowed to attend... So, technicalities sorted, I made it to @Bristol just in time for the start. Fortunately the session was about transport, which meant I got to quiz the West of England Partnership, Sustrans, Friends of the Earth, the Bristol/Bath Campaign for Better Transport, and of course First Bus.

Usual round of questions - do current plans go anywhere near meeting the projected demand for rail services in the region (no), would we be better off with an Integrated Transport Authority (yes), are people going to get out of their cars and start using the buses when the fares are so high and buses so unreliable ( As usual First Group said that the problem in Bristol is that there's so much congestion, traffic speeds are so slow, that they can't run as good a service as elsewhere - and the West of England Partnership said the showcase bus routes would go some way towards addressing this. I spoke to a couple of the First Group people afterwards and they said they're pioneering a 'Two for the Price of One' service on the A420 Showcase Bus Route in the evenings, which I hadn't spotted.

The West of England Partnership also said that they'd be looking at entering a Quality Partnership with First; I need to look into this. Does this tie us into having First as the virtual monopoly provider of bus services in Bristol for years to come, or do we still have the ultimate option of going for a Quality Contract instead if/when we finally lose patience with them? (And yes, I know for many that time has long since passed!)

As an aside, there was a few minutes break as one set of witnesses took the places of the previous set and so I tweeted I was about to quiz First - within seconds I got half a dozen replies, all urging me to 'give them hell'. I think this validates what I was saying about Twitter earlier. It didn't in anyway disrupt the committee proceedings or detract from my ability to question them, in fact it added a little 'oomph' to my questioning! I quoted First's response to the Committee's call for evidence back at them: "Commercial operators such as First provide a level of bus service provision across the region that meets current levels of demand... This competitive market for customers offers value for money and cost effective delivery of public transport to both the customer and tax payer". Can't let them get away with that, can we?!

Tweeting gibberish


Who says you can't say anything meaningful in 140 characters? I think the above tweet perfectly summed up my feelings at being rudely awakened at 6.30am and whisked off to Whiteladies Road to talk about Twitter for Five Live. (The boring explanation is, was about to tweet then realised taxi driver didn't have a clue where he was going and got distracted).

Anyway... was on Five Live to discuss with Lib Dem MP John Pugh his Early Day Motion on the use of smartphones by MPs in Parliament. (See below for full text). To be fair, it was one of those pieces where the media was only interested in it because they thought he was talking about MPs tweeting during PMQs and I'm not sure he actually was (although I'm pretty sure that the only reason my neighbour, Mr Williams, co-sponsored it was because of my known proclivities in the tweeting arena). I think Mr Pugh is more upset about MPs checking their emails or texting their offices while he's speaking... although having been on a Bill Committee with him fairly recently, I can perhaps understand why.

Before anyone gets too excited about this, have a look at the EDM number - yes, there are more than 2000 of them this parliamentary session. Some have hundreds of signatures. This one, so far, has five. An EDM - accurately described by someone as 'parliamentary grafitti' - doesn't mean anything in itself, except as a public nailing your colours to the mast, or in this case, as the parliamentary equivalent of appearing on Grumpy Old Men.

An MP can get up at business questions on a Thursday and ask for a debate in the Chamber on an EDM, but it's highly unlikely to be granted. At best, Harriet Harman, as Leader of the House, might say Mr Pugh has a point and she will look into it... but we've already had and won the debate over whether electronic devices can be used in the Chamber.

Of course it's not polite to be tweeting when someone next to you is speaking. I didn't tweet during this week's PMQs for example because I was on bench duty and only about five or six Ministers removed from Gordon Brown. It wouldn't have looked good. And it would also have been entirely wrong to have tweeted as he was reading out the names of the 37 soldiers who had died in Afghanistan during the parliamentary recess. (Pete Wishart, the SNP MP, got into trouble for saying something like 'I expected a more exciting PMQs first week back - yawn!). Yes, some of us did tweet later on during that session of PMQs, but not in the yah-boo way that might characterise other Wednesdays. But it is perfectly possible to, as Nicky Campbell said this morning, to walk and chew gum - or listen and tweet - at the same time. For some of us, at least!

EDM 2113
That this House while recognising the enormous benefits of the modern smartphone and the interest it generates, regrets the growing tendency of hon. Members to interact with these devices during select committee meetings and short debates when active engagement with the topic under consideration might be assumed, and the seeming, if at times quite understandable, greater interest shown in e-mails and messages than in the contribution of parliamentary colleagues; and encourages all hon. Members to limit their use of smartphones during proceedings of the House as part of the evolving courtesies and traditions of the House, helping to keep the proceedings of the House as genuinely interactive as the devices themselves.

Five signatories to date: John Pugh, Stephen Williams, Iris Robinson, Ann Cryer, Dai Davies.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

You've been Pickled

The Tories seem to think Eric Pickles can be branded as a lovable, down-to-earth character, and are putting him at the forefront of their campaigning, with YouTube direct to camera pieces and now this, interrupting the reveries of innocent music lovers on Spotify. So what do you think - is it a vote winner?

Autism Bill becomes law

"Dear Member of Parliament,

I am writing to say thank you for your help with making legal history. The Autism Bill, the first disability-specific law in the UK, today passed its Third Reading in the Lords.

The National Autistic Society has been delighted by the overwhelming support shown by Parliamentarians from both Houses. The cross-party spirit with which all parties approached this has been commendable.

The Autism Act, and the Adult Autism Strategy, has the potential to make a real difference to people’s lives, and we will continue to campaign to make sure that delivers on its promise.

Once again, many thanks for your help in achieving this milestone for people with autism. Do not hesitate to contact me should you wish to discuss the implications of the Autism Act and forthcoming strategy.

Best wishes,
The National Autistic Society"

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Do I want to be photographed with a giant egg?

I have a dilemma... Tomorrow there's a launch event for the RSPCA's Freedom Food "Simply Ask" campaign, which wants to get people asking about the provenance of their food when eating out - starting with eggs. Currently 80% of eggs used in the food service sector are from battery hens and the RSPCA obviously wants to change this, so has organised a photo-op for MPs with a giant egg, which they will be asked to sign.

I'm around in Parliament when it's happening and my diary is clear. However....

Do I follow the practice of previous years - this is an annual campaign in various permutations -and decide that as a vegan I shouldn't promote eating something I don't eat? Or should I opt for the 'lesser of two evils' approach and encourage people to opt for free range because it's better than battery farming? Decisions, decisions...

Mystery train

Thanks to Paul Smith for pointing out that my earlier post on "trains" has disappeared. I have no idea where it's gone and certainly don't have the energy or the powers of recall to write it again.

Heads up...

There's an urgent question at 3.30pm today on the transfer of prisoners (which I assume relates to the Wandsworth/ Pentonville inspections) followed by a statement on the Royal Mail. Urgent questions were virtually unheard of under the previous Speaker, but Mr Bercow seems rather fond of allowing them.

And tomorrow afternoon in Westminster Hall Dr Evan Harris has a 90 minute debate on libel laws and the reporting of parliament, which is obviously linked to the #trafigura case.

Update on deportation case

News on the release of the Vardanyan family from Yarlswood. My office have done a lot of work on this over the past week or so.

Response from PCC re #janmoir complaint

Dear Kerry McCarthy MP

Thank you for sending us your complaint about the Daily Mail article on the subject of the death of Stephen Gately. We have received numerous complaints about this matter.

I should first make clear that the Commission generally requires the involvement of directly affected parties before it can begin an investigation into an article. On this occasion, it may be a matter for the family of Mr Gately to raise a complaint about how his death has been treated by the Daily Mail. I can inform you that we have made ourselves available to the family and Mr Gately's bandmates, in order that they can use our services if they wish.

We require the direct involvement of affected parties because the PCC process can have a public outcome and it would be discourteous for the Commission to publish information relating to individuals without their knowledge or consent. Indeed, doing so might unwittingly add to any intrusion. Additionally, one of the PCC's roles is dispute resolution, and we would need contact with the affected party in order to determine what would be an acceptable means of settling a complaint.

On initial examination, it would appear that you are, therefore, a third party to the complaint, and wemay not be able to pursue your concerns further. However, if you feel that your complaint touches on claims that do not relate directly to Mr Gately or his family, please let us know, making clear how they raise a breach of the Code of Practice. If you feel that the Commission should waive its third party rules, please make clear why you believe this.

Press Complaints Commission

Equal representation in parliament

Nick Clegg is currently on TV giving evidence to the Speaker's conference, talking about the problems his party has in finding black/Asian candidates. Isn't it most likely attributable to the fact that most Lib Dem seats are in places like Cornwall and Devon and other rural areas where there are, quite simply, not many black people? And also that the Lib Dems, of all parties, emphasise the 'local' nature of a candidate and promote the kind of pavement politics which usually requires a local candidate? I'm not saying this as a criticism, just as a fact.

As for why they don't have more women MPs (and are likely to have even fewer after the next election, given the marginality of so many seats), it's probably just because they haven't adopted the affirmative measures that Labour has, or the wielding of central office muscle that the Tories have from time to time employed. Left to their own devices most parties will still go for the local man. Nick Clegg says the Lib Dems are trying to encourage local parties to choose a wider range of candidates, describing it as a 'bottom up' approach. I think history - for example, Labour's dropping of all-women shortlists in 2001, which resulted in only four new women MPs - shows that this is at best a very slow and tortuous route towards achieving equal representation.

I'd be interested to know what people think about the idea of a 'Dorothy's List' which has been set up within the Labour Party to promote LGBT representation. I can see the need for an organisation to support such candidates, and I know of one lesbian candidate who had a hard time in a recent selection, but not sure if the same approach should apply in this instance as for female and BME representation. Is a commitment to equality and tackling homophobia more important than the actual sexuality of an MP? Discuss!

Guest blog (reproduced without the author's permission but I don't suppose he minds!)

From the BBC's Michael Crick

Spot the difference(s)

Case A: Alan Bown gave a political party £363,697

1) It was his money
2) He had a business trading in this country, making him eligible to donate money
3) He was not on the electoral register when he donated although he was the year before, and also the year afterwards.

Case B: Michael Brown gave a political party £2.7m
1) It was not his money, he had defrauded it
2) His business was not trading in the UK, so therefore he was ineligible to donate money
3) He was not on the electoral register; neither was he the year afterwards, nor the year before.

Do you see the difference(s)?
Well the main difference is that the Electoral Commission has doggedly pursued the Alan Bown donation, and today won an appeal forcing the party to give up the money, despite a judge previously ruling that the political party that received it had acted in good faith.

In the Michael Brown case the Electoral Commission has always maintained the political party acted in good faith and need not repay money. Although following the criminal proceedings against Mr Brown they have re-opened an investigation, it has not had yet had any result and they have not managed to say when, if ever, it will.

Oh yes there is one other difference:

This year the Political Parties and Elections Act went through Parliament, and among other things it restructured the Electoral Commission and gave it new funding and powers.

The political party in Case A, UKIP, has no MPs and only three representatives in the House of Lords (where the government has no majority and is particularly vulnerable to amendments).

The political party in Case B, the Liberal Democrats, has 63 MPs and 71 members of the House of Lords (where the Government has no majority and is particularly vulnerable to amendments).

At least those are the difference that I can see. Perhaps you can you suggest others?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Just got this through from local police

The BBC Panorama programme this evening will be based on the experiences of two undercover reporters residing on the Southmead Estate throughout the summer of 2009. The report is expected to show the undercover journalists being subjected to a number of racially motivated incidents.

The programme makers have refused to provide any further detail before screening the documentary, however, Avon and Somerset Police, Safer Bristol and Bristol City Council will be monitoring the situation very closely to ensure that offenders are brought to justice.

PS Here's the link to more info on the programme.

And I think it's only fair to show this response from local residents.

Education in Bristol - a tale of two cities?

This press release on education in Bristol (with links to information on other cities) popped into my inbox over the weekend. Interesting stats, although it should be noted that they're based on current constituency boundaries.

Bristol East currently has the highest number of people with no educational qualifications in Bristol. At an educated guess (excuse the unintentional pun) I'd say that this is largely attributable to Lawrence Hill and Easton wards, which will be going into Bristol West at the next election. The new Bristol West seat will include some of the most affluent/ educated parts of Bristol, and some of the least. Can I suggest that a lad from Hartcliffe with a degree in astrophysics might be well suited to be the next MP?

Prisoners' children

We seem to be approaching Paddington, so a short post... There's a piece in the Times today about prisoners' children. (Why oh why is it filed online under 'Life and Style: Women and Families' - it's in the News section in the paper.) This is a subject I've campaigned on for several years, including a Westminster Hall debate last year. I'm glad Barnardo's are campaigning on this issue... and now we're at Paddington!

10:10 - it's what you do that counts

This week's resolution - to blog more, rather than to put everything out on Twitter. So, I'm on train to London, ready for another week in Parliament and hoping it's better than last week. Tomorrow we have the Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform Bill (I could try to list what's in it here, but I shall be lazy and perhaps post the Hansard account later on). Today it's Conservative Opposition Day and they're going on the economy. Unusually they're taking up the whole six hours with one topic; usually it's two. And interestingly the speakers for the Tories are Ken Clarke and - correction from earlier version - Theresa May, not Phil Hammond, because it's an Economy and Welfare debate and she's shadow DWP). Boy George is obviously off polishing his conkers. (Actually it was the parliamentary conker championship last Wednesday, politicians against the press. Having the hand-eye co-ordination of a goldfish, I didn't take part, and I don't know who won). The debate is going on now, and Ken Clarke has just given a rather lacklustre performance.

On Wednesday the Lib Dems have been quite clever/ sneaky. They also have an Opposition Day, and judging from the emails coming in, one of their topics will be the 10:10 commitment, calling on Parliament, Government and all the public sector to sign up. I say sneaky because Ed Miliband has already made clear he wants as many people/ organisations as possible to sign up, and this is the Lib Dem way of making it 'their' issue. But still, it's a good cause and deserves to be brought to greater public attention.

What's important though is not how many sign up; it's whether they actually act upon the pledge. It's very easy to say 'I'm supporting 10:10' but not so easy to sit down and work out how to cut 10% from your own carbon footprint. (It's actually relatively easy if you haven't been environmentally conscious till now... in the same way it's easier to go on a diet if you eat Big Macs and KFC every day and drink 10 pints a night.)

I will, before 2010 is upon us, sit down with the Guardian's 10:10 guide and work out what I'm going to do, but seeing as I'm already vegan, drive a Smart car (once or twice a week), have one plug-in radiator that heats the entire flat, don't have a loft or cavity walls (so can't insulate), don't have a garden (so composting is a bit difficult) and don't really have any household appliances due for replacement, I think it will have to be flying that takes the hit. This year I will have flown three times - to Zambia and (next month) to Lebanon on parliamentary business*, and to Spain on holiday. The year before was much worse than that, I think I went to Bangladesh, India, Zambia, Florida (for the US elections)... So next year, I will seek to improve on that. I will also put lids on my saucepans when cooking!

*I pulled out of the Lebanon trip, so only one long-haul, one short-haul flight this year. Though that actually makes 10:10 harder for me, not easier, doesn't it!

What we can all learn from Brawn and Button

Somewhere back in the archives on this blog you will find an account of my visit to the Honda F1 factory earlier this year, which was absolutely fascinating, not least in hearing how the latest advancements in F1 technology were being shared with other industrial sectors, e.g. defence, aviation. I had lunch with Ross Brawn and also got to see Jenson Button's car, which was just about to be flown out for pre-season testing somewhere in Europe, can't remember where. And apart from meeting Ross Brawn, I also got to chat with people working on the car at every stage, from apprentices to computer buffs.

That was on the Monday. By Thursday we had the news that Honda were pulling out of F1. Devastating news for all who worked at Honda F1.... And now of course, the rest is history. Brawn stepped in, saved the team, and resurrected it under his own name. Jenson apparently took a £5 million pay cut and paid for his own expenses for each grand prix. With a combination of an incredibly fast car (at least in the early races), Brawn the master tactician, and some spectacular driving, Jenson Button is now world champion.

The thing I love about this parable is that it demonstrates loyalty to the team, at every level, from Brawn and Button (who had already turned down offers from four other teams to stick with Honda) and from everyone involved. F1 is a team sport, not an individual endeavour, and in the best teams people don't abandon ship when the going gets tough. They get stuck in, they pull out all the stops, they fight to save what they know is worth saving. As I said, it's a parable....

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Lib Dems demand clarity on tuition fees - but not from themselves!

This was posted on the 'scrap tuition fees' Facebook site. No mention of the fact that the Lib Dems "commitment" to abolish tuition fees was firmly kicked over the fence upon which the Lib Dems love to loiter and into the long grass at Lib Dem conference? It's now little more than a declared aspiration 'once we've got the money' and we all know that we don't have the money, otherwise Labour would never have introduced fees in the first place. (Someone has suggested there's a degree of sophistry over the use of the phrase "tuition fees model" below? Anyone care to explain?) Here's the post....

"Yesterday's London Evening Standard front page story let the cat out of the bag on Tory HE policy. It seems they are willing to contemplate £7,000pa tuition fees... as long as students benefit! In yesterday's House of Commons debate on HE I made it clear that the Lib Dems are still the only party pledged to abolish the tuition fees model for financing universities. The Labour government and the Conservatives have been hiding behind the fees review, which has yet to start its work and now won't finish until AFTER the general election. Students and parents deserve to have more clarity at the election. If you have a Conservative MP, why not write and ask if they agree with increasing fees. And if you've a Labour MP, demand that they come clean on their proposals BEFORE the general election."

Best wishes,


Lib Dem Shadow Innovation, Universities and Skills Secretary

PS let me know of responses from Tory and Labour MPs!

No parliamentary pass for fascists

For the past few days we've been trying to get a bit of business through at the end of the day entitled "Access to Parliament (United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament)". It amends the current law which allows all MEPs parliamentary passes, on the grounds of 'growing pressure on parliamentary facilities' (according to the explanatory memo) and the absence of similar arrangements for other elected representatives, e.g. members of the devolved assemblies.

Of course this would have the entirely desirable side-effect of preventing Nick Griffin from strutting his stuff through the corridors of Westminster at will.

This type of business goes through on the nod, unless someone shouts 'object', in which case it gets deferred to the next day. Christopher Chope, the Conservative MP, has been making a special point of coming into the Chamber each night, just to shout 'object'. It's really about time he explained why.

Are there too many traffic lights in Bristol?


But if you want to know more, here's the BEP piece on it.

And here's a follow-up piece in the BEP too. Please note, it is NOT Government policy to make people wait at traffic lights so as to collect more fuel tax - not least because the decisions about regulating traffic flow are made by several people sitting in an office in Bristol city centre.

Sign up to Ed's pledge!

I may find time later tonight for a more lengthy post on climate change in support of today's but in case I don't, can I at least urge you to sign up to Ed's pledge on Copenhagen, and to visit the website, which is a great source of information on what the Government is doing. You will also see that Ed has been having a little bit of a debate with Greenpeace on Twitter, and despite what Iain Dale may say, it most certainly is Ed doing it - he was telling me about it last night.

Trafigura letter to MPs

If I have followed instructions correctly, this should be the letter sent by Carter Ruck to MPs today. Thanks to everyone for their technical advice!

Today in Parliament...

Sir George Young is doing his first stint as Shadow Leader of the House at this very moment. (First stint this time round; he's done it before). A marked change from his predecessor, Alan Duncan, who could always be relied upon to bring a bit of verve and humour to the occasion. He's just asked for a debate on the Guardian injunction, and also on the EDM which calls for election night to be protected, i.e. for the count to be held on the Thursday night. He said that the latter was 'a burning issue in the blogosphere.' (Clearly reading from his notes; I suspect Sir George is not intimately acquainted with the blogosphere). I received a phone call during Harriet's response so don't know what she said about Trafigura, but on the election night issue she said it's first and foremost a matter for the Electoral Commission.

On the Trafigura issue - all MPs were copied in this morning on a letter to the Speaker from Carter Ruck. If anyone can explain to me how you attach links to pdf documents on here, I'd be happy to post it.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Guardian gag - Qs in Commons today

Points of Order
3.32 pm
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to raise a chain of events that may be of some concern to the House. Today The Guardian reported that it had been prevented from reporting a written question tabled by a Member of Parliament. This morning I telephoned The Guardian to ask whether that MP was myself. The question was printed on the Order Paper yesterday and relates to the activities of Trafigura, an international oil trader at the centre of a controversy concerning toxic waste dumping on the Ivory Coast. The question also relates to the role of its solicitors, Carter-Ruck. I understand that yesterday Carter-Ruck, quite astonishingly, warned The Guardian of legal action if the newspaper reported my question. In view of the seriousness of this, Mr. Speaker, will you accept representations from me over this matter and consider whether Carter-Ruck’s behaviour constitutes potential contempt of Parliament?

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Further to that point of order—
Mr. Speaker: In a moment.
Let me first say to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) that I think that he has just made representations. I am grateful to him for his point of order and for courteously giving me advance notice of it. A written question has indeed been tabled, as he said, by the hon. Gentleman himself. It is not sub judice under the House’s rules. It has already been published on the notices of questions, and it is also available on the Order Paper and, indeed, on the parliamentary website. There is no question of our own proceedings being in any way inhibited. If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue this as a matter of privilege, there is of course, as he will doubtless know, an established procedure for raising it with me in writing. Furthermore, I now understand that an injunction is no longer being sought. I hope that that reply is helpful both to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.

Mr. Heath: I also wish to speak about the matter raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), because it seems to me that a fundamental principle of this House is now being threatened by the legal proceedings for an injunction and the consequent proceedings for contempt of court in respect of injuncted material. As you know, we have enjoyed in this House since 1688 the privilege of being able to speak freely. We have also developed the right of British citizens to know what we say in this House and have it reported freely. Is there an opportunity for a wider debate on what I think is a very substantial matter, either through a consideration of privilege or on the Floor of the Chamber?

Mr. Speaker: There are usually further opportunities, as the hon. Gentleman, as an experienced parliamentarian, can testify. I hope that he will not mind if I point out that one suitable opportunity to raise the matter might be at business questions, in relation to which he himself enjoys a privileged position.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): You, Mr. Speaker, are the defender of our rights and privileges in this place. This is a new class of injunction, a so-called super injunction, in which the press are not even allowed to report the injunction itself and the existence of the case. That is how Parliament’s reporting has been stopped by it. Could you undertake to the House to do two things? First, will you take legal advice to see whether the courts can be instructed not to grant injunctions that close down reporting of this place? Secondly, will you seek a meeting with the Secretary of State of Justice, who I know is sympathetic to this—it is not a party matter—to see whether the Government can act to achieve that same aim?

Mr. Speaker: I am not sure that I can accommodate the right hon. Gentleman in relation to his first question. I am not sure that it would be right to interfere with a legal process in the way that I think his question would invite me to do. I would like to reflect further upon the second point that he has very reasonably put to me.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On the same point of order, Mr. Speaker. While you are reflecting on that point, may I ask you also to reflect on whether the increasing habit of solicitors of seeking injunctions in advance of publication, not only in this case but in others, might prevent newspapers regularly from reporting such questions? Given that the efforts of John Wilkes MP in the 18th century to provide for the reporting of parliamentary proceedings were such an important breakthrough, and indeed led to the disuse of sedition laws against this House, would it be possible for you to reflect on that and see whether something urgently needs to be done to control the habit of law firms of seeking to prevent the reporting of this House?

Mr. Speaker: It has always been my pleasure to reflect on any observations put to me by the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that he is seeking to inveigle me into a wider debate than I should enter this afternoon. I think it is fair simply to reiterate the point that the proceedings of the House have been, and will be, in no way inhibited. For today, I would like to leave it at that.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The 's' word (part two)

Of course some in the blogosphere are out-and-out misogynists and pride themselves on being so, even if they do feign outrage when accused of such sins. Others are well-intentioned accidental offenders. And some are so scared of being called sexist, they over-compensate in the opposite direction, which in itself could perhaps be deemed a tad sexist, implicitly endorsing as it does the ‘feminazi’ stereotype of a woman who will metaphorically – perhaps even literally – castrate you if you so much as say ‘nice frock’.

Which brings me nicely onto this anecdote. During Gordon’s speech at conference I took part in Sky’s “Unplugged” coverage. As Sarah walked on to introduce Gordon I was asked by the interviewer what I thought – great dress I said. (I realise now he was expecting some insightful political commentary on the fact Sarah was once again introducing Gordon, not on what she was wearing. But it was a great dress). Interviewer raised his eyebrows. “You can say that, I’d be in trouble if I did”. In other words, he’d have been called sexist. I also tweeted it at the same time – I was very impressed by the dress - and got this response (from a man): “Imagine reaction if a man, or Daily Mail, has said that. Really!”

Now I appreciate that if a man had walked on stage my initial response would not have been nice suit – but that’s because suits are, by and large, boring. If Mandela had walked on stage I might well have said nice shirt. It usually is with Nelson. And not an episode of QT goes by without many a tweet on Dimbelby’s latest tie. We get quite excited when it's the spider one.

For the record, I don’t think it’s sexist to say nice things about what someone’s wearing. If I wear a new outfit or new boots, I’m far more offended if no-one comments. I wore some rather high wedge sandals in parliament before recess. At exactly the same time one of my colleagues exclaimed ‘they’re ridiculous’ and another gushed ‘they’re fabulous’. One was Chris Bryant, the other was a woman. I think you can guess which one was which.

It does depend on context though and – tricky point this – the way in which things are said. Middle-aged men taking too much of an interest in one’s knee-length boots can sometimes veer towards the pervy end of the appreciation scale. And yes, this falls into the category of things men can never get right... and then get blamed by women for getting wrong. It's to do with intonation and the look on your face, and where you are when the comment is made...and, to be frank, whether you've got a bit of a reputation for that sort of thing.

A Tory, I think, once told me he’d been on an overseas trip with a female Labour MP who had rounded on him for trying to hold the door open for her, and terrified him so much he actually asked me if I minded him doing it for me. No, of course I don’t. (I do however object to David Cameron walking through doors in front of me and letting them slam in my face because he’s too arrogant to notice that anyone else is in his vicinity, which has happened at least twice, if not three times. And no, it’s not because he knows who I am. I wouldn’t object so much if it was. So much for public school manners.)

But I digress.... So if it’s not sexist to say ‘nice dress’, is it sexist to say ‘horrible dress’? Yes. Women are not in politics to be judged on how they look, but what they say. You are allowed to say they look nice, but not go on and on about it. (Caroline Flint being a case in point. We’ve had that discussion, she’s an attractive woman, get over it. Although it has to be said, it’s not confined to women politicians. Many an hour of female Labour activists’ time has been devoted to the perennial ‘which Miliband brother’ question, which is usually only brought to a close when someone mentions Andy Burnham’s eyelashes).

Saying nice things in a non-perverted way is OK. Even discussing the relative attractiveness of Yvette –v- Harriet is probably OK, so long as you don’t go on and on about it, and don’t do it in a ‘not if you paid me’ kind of way. Pointing out female unattractiveness, or weight gain, or ageing, or hideous frock is not OK, unless they’re Tories. (I jest). It’s OK to bitch amongst friends about someone’s dress sense, or bad hair, but not in public because that’s mean and plays into their hands. ‘They’ being the real misogynists out there who will just use it as an excuse to say vile things themselves. And actually it’s not really even OK to do it amongst friends, but we all do, don’t we? How else would we get through those interminable Vince Cable sermons in the Commons without discussing the benches opposite? Although ties are the most frequent topic of conversation amongst the male MPs, at least when I'm listening.

I realise I’m not making much progress in pinning this down... I’m not sure where the border lies between being rude or unkind, and being sexist. After all, many a jest has been made on Twitter about Eric Pickles and pies, so what’s the difference between that and commenting on Ann Widdecombe’s pre-Celebrity Fit Club bulk? “Because you shouldn’t judge women in politics by their appearance” comes the answer. But you’re allowed to do it to men? Maybe... because when it comes down to it, Eric Pickles isn’t judged primarily by his less than godlike physique, but by his politics (which are even less attractive).

At the end of the day, this is something you either ‘get’ or don’t get.... It’s about intention, and underlying agendas, and what we know, or think we know, of your views on women. It’s about whether you’re trying to put women down by raising issues specific to them as women, as opposed to just having a go on political grounds. It’s about whether there’s an element of condescension that you wouldn’t employ when talking to a man, or a total failure to listen to anything a woman says or does without putting it into a sexual context. And it definitely includes those menacing ‘we’re watching you’ comments from the lunatic libertarians.

So in terms of an idiots' guide to sexism, not very helpful. But the idiots probably don't care.

The s-word (part one)

So.. here begins a no doubt futile attempt to explain to people who don’t instantly ‘get it’ why Ian Hislop’s attack on Yvette Cooper on Question Time last night was just so wrong – and yes, sexist. Ian challenged her: would you be in the Cabinet if your husband wasn’t a Cabinet minister? His implication being that no, she wouldn’t.

First of all, the facts. Yvette was elected to parliament in 1997, some eight years before Ed. She was well up the ministerial ladder whilst he was still a backbencher. Of course Ed wasn’t any old backbencher; he had after all been the Chancellor-soon-to-be-Prime-Minister’s right hand man for many years. But how much did Yvette’s career owe to his influence? By the time they met, she already had a PPE from Balliol college, Oxford, a Kennedy scholarship to Harvard, an M.Sc from the LSE, and then worked for John Smith as Shadow Chancellor and then, after a spell working on the Bill Clinton campaign as a policy advisor, worked for Harriet Harman when she was Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. (The Shadow Chancellor by then was, of course, Gordon Brown). She then became a leader writer for the Independent before she got elected. She didn't even marry Ed till 1998.

In other words, her background is not at all disimilar to all the men who made the Cabinet at a relatively young age - the Millibands, Andy Burnham, James Purnell, Ed Balls. (Have now deleted the reference to Ruth Kelly! But similar background to hers too). And yes, there is a very valid point to be made here about the new breed of ‘professional politicians’ (and the Bristol Blogger will no doubt make it). And about how one thing leads to another, e.g. Oxford = contacts = plum researcher's job = plum media job, and what about those who don't have the contacts, the self-confidence, the social background to pull this off? There is perhaps even a valid point to be made about nepotism, in that Yvette’s father was a trade union leader, and his contacts may have helped her on her way.

Hislop could have had a bit of a go at Yvette on any of those points, when she criticised Osborne and Cameron for having had an easy ride in life. (Though for the record I think her point was entirely valid). But that wasn’t what Hislop was getting at, nor was it what the many Tory tweeters who insisted on referring to her as Mrs Balls throughout Question Time, were getting at either. (Echoes there of right-wing commentators insisting on referring to Jacqui Smith as Mrs Timney during the expenses problems earlier this year). I got into a bit of a spat with a Tory activist on Twitter who insisted that it was ‘technically’ correct to call her Mrs Balls, at which point even Louise Bagshawe felt obliged to step in and put him straight.

I also took umbrage with a usually fairly reasonable guy who tweeted something along the lines of 'I bet Yvette Cooper can be a real b**** when she wants to' (his asterixes). His next response to me was 'But you'd have to quite hard-faced to make it into the Cabinet'. At which point I asked whether he'd described Alan Johnson or Andy Burnham as hard-faced, and was met with silence.

The fact is Yvette is bright, she’s serious-minded, she’s very hard-working; she was obviously someone who, from the moment she was elected, was going places. She doesn’t owe her Cabinet position to her husband anymore than Ed Miliband owes his Cabinet place to his brother. And for those who say it’s not sexist to raise the issue of so-called nepotism in this way – has it ever been suggested that Ed Balls owes his meteoric rise to the Cabinet to his marriage to a minister? Or his seat in parliament? No – although it was probably very helpful having a wife in the seat next door when he went for Normanton.

The right-wing use the ‘playing the sexist card’ rebuff so frequently, or accusations of being a ‘feminazi’ or ‘politically correct’ it does have the impact of making you think twice about ever mentioning the ‘s-word’, but last night’s programme was so blatant, so infuriating... Not just Hislop but all the commentary too (one particular idiot said that the toughest decision Yvette had to make was between scarlet and fuschia - she's the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for god's sake!) It was an uncomfortable reminder of just what you're up against as a woman in politics, and it was good to see Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem MP, also having a go at Hislip on Twitter.

Hislop does of course have form on this. Remember his savage treatment of Paula Yates on HIGNFY. I’d love to see someone put him on the spot about it; they should get him on Loose Women or Women’s Hour!

Question Time is on again on the Parliament channel on Sunday at 6pm, and on i-player, if you want to check it out yourself. And on Twitter, there's a #bbcqt hashtag where you can see all the past tweets.

On the ball, as ever

I can't really think of anything to say about this - words fail me - so I will leave it to others. Richard Littlejohn in today's Mail:

"The timing of Sir Richard Dannatt's appointment as an adviser to the Conservative defence team could not have been much worse. But have you noticed how when Labour seconds outside experts it's called 'a government of all the talents' and when the Tories do the same it's a "cynical stunt"?

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Book reviews

Have managed to get through a few books this week. One was rather a disappointment. It's by Jane Bussman, called 'The Worst Date Ever: War Crimes, Hollywood Hearthrobs and Other Abominations". It's a true life story about how the author, a celebrity journalist, developed a crush on a UN negotiator whose picture she saw in a magazine and somehow ended up in northern Uganda reporting on the conflict there in a bid to date him. It's meant to be a comedy - the author has also written for South Park, Brass Eye and The Fast Show - but I thought the humour was crass, relentless and, well, not funny. The bits that made it worth perservering with though are the bits set in northern Uganda, meeting with child soldiers and army generals. Not sure her analysis of the conflict and the aid effort (she grows to despise what she dubs 'the Useful People') would stand up to scrutiny, but it's an interesting insight.

Have also just finished 'Outliers: The Story of Success' which I thought at first was one of those annoying '7 secrets of the successful whatever' books, but was actually quite thought-provoking. It's divided into two sections, Opportunity and Legacy. Opportunity looks at how being born in the right place at the right time in the right circumstances can make the difference between success and relative failure - e.g. looking at how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs managed to hit the computing wave just as it gathered momentum. Legacy looks at how cultural factors play a role - e.g. why men from the southern states of the USA are more likely than their northern countrymen to 'lose it' when they're insulted (because they come from a 'culture of honour') - and 'the ethnic theory of plane crashes', which is all about cultural willingness to challenge authority or to speak without ambiguity and Hofstede's Dimensions. If you enjoyed Freakonomics, you'd probably like this.

To me it was particularly interesting to look at the factors that influence educational success, and the differing outcomes for children, all of stunningly high IQ, from different family backgrounds. Children who grew up in an atmosphere of 'concerned cultivation' (i.e. where their talents were identified earlier, and measures taken to encourage those talents to flourish) did much better than those who were raised in an atmosphere of 'natural growth' (i.e. where the kids were pretty much left to get on with it). And what determines whether a child is raised in the first or second environment? Class, of course.

When the seagulls follow the ship...

I think I’ll give up apologising for gaps in blogging. Just assume I’m either busy with work or have a life to get on with. (The latter is very rarely true). But after a hiatus, I feel the urge to catch up on a few things, so excuses from me at this stage if they’re not very topical.

First of all though, the monster that is Twitter, or perhaps that should be the monster that is the Twitter tsar? Let’s get a few things straight. Twitter is a means of communication; I happen to think it’s a very good one, but in the end it’s what you say on there and the people you talk to on there that makes it great. It’s certainly not the only form of new media that the Labour Party is using, as Mark Hanson’s article here on Labour's media strategy demonstrates. And my role as the Party’s new media campaigns spokesperson is not confined to Twitter although 99% of the time that’s all anyone wants to talk about. Today, for example Labour had a bit of fun with its ‘buzzword bingo’ during Cameron’s speech.

Some not very polite people (Iain Dale, Nadine Dorries) have accused me of being delusional about the power of Twitter. This in part stems from a light-hearted remark I made after the Sun attempted to sabotage Gordon’s big day with its announcement it would be backing the Tories. I said ‘who needs the Sun, when we’ve got Twitter’. It was meant to be like those birthday cards which say ‘Who needs men when you’ve got chocolate!’ i.e. sod them, we’ll survive. (I can never actually work out when Tories pick up on things like this whether they genuinely think they’ve spotted an own goal, or are just diving in the penalty area. And yes, I should drop the footballing metaphors right now.)

Whilst on the subject of being misunderstood on Twitter... Can I make it absolutely and categorically clear that I most certainly did not tweet that I was sitting in a poncho with a blanket over my knees because I couldn’t afford to put the heating on? Thanks, Paul Waugh of the Evening Standard for re-tweeting to all and sundry that it was not a wise thing for an MP to be saying! No it wasn’t, particularly one is currently on holiday somewhere very sunny and was sitting by the pool at the time. I was having a conversation on Twitter with someone who had retired early for medical reasons, and was making the case for the Winter Fuel Allowance to be extended to people such as himself. He said it, not me.

Do I tweet too much? Probably, but usually it’s because I can’t resist a row with a Tory, even if it’s a teenager who thinks Boris Johnson is “awesome”. (And I suppose a tiny little bit of me thinks it’s not too late to save them). Also, it’s only polite to retweet when one of the tsardines makes a good point. Tsardines – not my idea, came from a party activist I think, but I like it. Ed Miliband at conference said he was honoured to be a tsardine. Check out his interview for Tweetminster here. (Some would say twinterview. Not me).

I mostly tweet at night and I’m usually multi-tasking (watching Newsnight, checking personal emails, doing the housework). I’m beginning to realise though that a few tweets before bedtime is not conducive to a good night’s sleep, particularly if one of the Tory tots has been in particularly condescending form. (And yes, pot-kettle-black, but they deserve it).

I’m worried however that as the number of participants on Twitter grows, it will become neither entertainment nor a useful form of engagement. It’s easy to allow all your attention to be consumed by trolls or Tories, when you’d really rather be following the conversation between @CllrTim, @bristolwestpaul and @Andrew_GwynneMP about pies. And when they realise you do actually answer back, there’s no stopping them – e.g. the follower/ stalker* I acquired yesterday who seems to think a Paxman-interviewing-Howard style of tweeting will eventually get me to do a u-turn on hunting. It won’t. (*He stalks deer. And me). He has fewer than 20 followers; I have more than 3000, so me replying to his tweets is just doing his PR for him. Negative PR maybe, but all publicity as they say...

And so I’m rather reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I might have to block a few more people on Twitter. To date I may have blocked 4 or 5, for very good reasons except for the guy I blocked yesterday just because he was really annoying me and I’d been feeling really chilled out and relaxed before he started.

That doesn’t mean I want to block people just because they disagree with me. Debate is good, disagreement is fine - although it usually degenerates into an unproductive slanging match along the lines of ‘my team’s better than yours’.

Where debate on Twitter can be good is on challenging the substance behind the spin; for example, Osborne announces a freeze on public sector pay, and people on Twitter immediately start asking what happens if someone who’s on £17,999 is due for a pay rise which would end up giving them more than their colleague ‘frozen’ on £18,250? Or Cameron’s speech today, when he said not all Labour had done was bad, that devolution, civil partnerships and the minimum wage were good and should be retained. Cue an immediate outburst on Twitter reminding people of Tory opposition when those measures were introduced. And Twitter is also great for spreading word of gaffes, and links to the evidence, as with Chris Grayling’s faux pas yesterday over General Dannatt’s appointment.

Slinging around a few witty barbs or insults is also fine, and it’s inevitable in my new role that I’ll become a target for those, especially as I’m not exactly reluctant to dish them out myself on occasion... But when people are just gratuitously offensive all the time, and have nothing to say of any substance, and actually aren’t interested in engagement, then I think the time may have come to put them in the naughty corner – and leave them there.

I’ve just realised I’ve done a 1000+ word blog post and it’s all about Twitter. I may get onto something else after dinner. It’s about time I did!