The video your MP must see #ArmsTradeTreaty

Amnesty have launched a new action today to keep the campaign for a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty in the political spotlight as we enter a crucial phase in the negotiations. Last July I attended the first couple of days of the month-long UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty in New York: a frustrating couple of days in which very little progress was made, but useful in that it gave me a real insight into the complexities of trying to bring countries with very different agendas to a state of consensus.

I met David Grimason on that trip, who lost his two year old son to a stray bullet when a gunfight broke out in a Turkish cafe nearly ten years ago. Since then David has campaigned for arms controls, and particularly for tougher controls on small arms, which are responsible for many deaths and maiming, and also for the sexual assaults and rapes at gunpoint to which women and girls across the world are being subjected in ever increasing numbers.

On returning to the UK I kept a close eye on what was going on in New York, with regular updates from Amnesty and others from the global Control Arms campaign. At times things looked to be moving in the right direction, with real hope of progress being made. But at the final hurdle the talks collapsed.

We are now 21 days away from the talks resuming. The UK Government is in theory committed to securing a comprehensive ATT, but that is not enough. The idea of an ATT was first floated by senior figures during the last Labour Government, and over those years a real sense of momentum developed as other countries signed up in spirit to the concept. It now needs real political will and strong leadership from the current UK Government to seal the deal, and get as many countries as possible to commit not just in spirit but with their actual signatures on the treaty.

Amnesty’s action is designed to show William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and Alistair Burt, the FCO Minister with direct responsibility for the ATT, that the public wants and expects them to show leadership in March. It’s not enough for the UK to turn up to the talks as spectators, or semi-engaged participants. Now is not the time for a half-hearted approach. This could be an historic moment, which will benefit millions of people across the globe by protecting them from the devastating impact of living in countries where arms are freely available and gun violence is a part of everyday life.

I would urge all of you to sign up to Amnesty’s action, and to watch their video – and get your MP to watch it too!

The video your MP must see

What’s Going On… the Succession to the Crown Bill

Tomorrow a Committee of the Whole House will be considering amendments to the Succession to the Crown Bill. The Speaker hasn’t selected the amendments for debate yet, but looking at those tabled I see that Paul Flynn and Kelvin Hopkins are moving the following new clause, entitled “Civil Partnership”:

“In the event of the heir to the throne contracting a civil partnership any progeny of that partnership by adoption or artificial insemination should quality to inherit the throne”.Which raises some very interesting Qs about how you’d select the sperm donor! I very much doubt that will be selected…

There are also calls for a referendum on the future of the monarchy after the current Queen dies, and quite a few references to “the Popish Religion” which is apparently what it is officially called. The Bill would permit the monarch to marry a Catholic – which is the only faith at the moment they’re not allowed to marry. They can marry a Muslim or a Hindu or, presumably, a Jedi, but not a Catholic.

As one might imagine, Jacob Rees Mogg – who I think is Anglo-Catholic – is taking a keen interest in this Bill. I think his amendments are seeking to get round the bar on the monarch being a Catholic, by saying that if the monarch marries a Catholic then an heir to the throne who inherits the Catholic faith from his/ her parent would be allowed to be Catholic. Which of course throws the whole Defender of the Faith/ head of the Church of England thing on its head.

Anyway, expect some interesting contributions to the debate tomorrow from Labour’s Paul Flynn and Chris Bryant, and of course the Mogg. Chloe Smith is leading for the Government, Wayne David for Labour.

What’s Going On… with the Welfare Bill

Ok, I’ve been doing shadow FCO things for a couple of hours, (team meeting, prepping for tomorrow’s FCO questions, Douglas Alexander speaking at the PLP on Europe).

I’m now about to head into the Chamber for the Welfare Uprating Bill but thought it might be as, if not more, useful to do a quick blog post explaining what’s happening right now in the Commons Chamber. I’m in my office, following it on the telly…

This is a very short Bill – only 3 clauses – and some might say we don’t actually need primary legislation to enact the key provisions but that the Government is simply doing it to put Labour in a position where they can say we’re on the side of the so-called ‘shirkers’ rather than the ‘strivers’ – i.e. that whereas we accept the need for some public sector pay restraint, we’re happy to give people on benefits a bigger rise. So they’re introducing a Bill to keep the uprating of benefits and tax credits to 1% for the tax years 2014-15 and 2015-16. Two points to note: firstly, that two-thirds of those in receipt of the so-called ‘shirkers’ benefits are in work (and many more would be if they could find work or were physically/ mentally healthy enough to work), and secondly, that this measure will put another 200,000 children into poverty. From a Government that signed up to the Keep the Promise pledge from the End Child Poverty campaign before the 2010 election.

But plenty has been said about that elsewhere. I just wanted to explain the procedure today. Normally a Bill would go off to Committee for consideration by maybe 15-17 people, and might be amended, and would then come back to the House for Report Stage where further amendments could be tabled. Because this is a short Bill, and because there isn’t much else in the way of legislation for us at the moment, it’s all being done in the Chamber – what they call a ‘Committee of the Whole House’. That’s why it’s a Committee Chair taking the debate, rather than a Speaker or Deputy Speaker up in the Speaker’s Chair.

A number of amendments and new clauses were tabled. The key ones are deleting the 1% from the Bill, for benefits, ESA and for tax credits; assessing its impact on chld poverty; and an amendment tabled by former Housing Minister John Healey on housing benefits.

After these amendments are tabled, we get what is called the ‘Speaker’s Selection’ – ie which amendments and new clauses he has chosen for debate. The others fall by the wayside – but they’re usually ones that are only loosely related to the main subject matter of the Bill. Sometimes very loosely related! We don’t find out what’s been selected till the day of the debate itself.

The Speaker also groups the amendments by subject, ie all those on tax credits together. Sometimes he will insert what are called ‘knives’ into the running order, so that the first group of amendments has to be dealt with by 6pm or within 2 hours of the debate starting, whichever is later, and the next group by 8pm, and so on. He hasn’t done that today. So that means the first group of amendments could run till the end of the debate at 9pm and it looks like that’s what’s happening now.

The other thing to note is that we had a statement from the Prime Minister on Algeria today, which meant that instead of starting the debate at 3.30pm after Education Qs, we didn’t get started till 4.50pm. The Third Reading is at 9pm, so that means four hours to debate all the amendments and new clauses. We will vote at 9pm, and if there are several votes – which each take 15 minutes or so – there will be very little time for the Third Reading debate, on the overall Bill, as we have to finish at 10pm.

At present – 8pm – we are still on the first group of amendments, which deals with the 1% uprating to certain benefits. The next group of amendments is on ESA, the next on tax credits, and almost at the end we get to look at the new clauses.

I really want to talk about Labour’s New Clause 1, which calls for the Secretary of State to publish and lay before parliament a report assessing the impact of the Bill on the number of children living in a) relative low income, b) combined low income and material deprivation, c) absolute low income and d) persistent poverty, as defined in the Child Poverty Act 2010. But we’re not going to get to that. 200,000 more kids in poverty and no debate.

By the way, the 200,000 more kids in poverty is just the number that will result from this particular measure. It’s estimated that 1 million more could be pushed into poverty as a result of this and everything else the Government is doing. An Eton-educated Tory MP – Kwasi Kwarteng – is currently on his feet denouncing socialism. Actually now it’s Frank Field, saying it’s a ‘terrible Bill’. I’m heading down to the Chamber…

Back to work

OK, so it was back to Parliament today, although a scrappy sort of day with random bits and pieces in the Chamber and no votes. Very strange not to have any statements on first day back after recess – a sign I suppose that the Christmas/ New Year period was quieter than most.

I went into Home Office Qs and to the PLP weekly meeting to hear Ed Balls and Liam Byrne talk about tomorrow’s Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill, but apart from that I spent the day in my office. The main debate in the chamber, in so far as there was one, was about getting more women onto company boards, but it was already over-subscribed (ie lots of people wanting to speak, five minute time limit imposed). And to be honest I’m a little ambivalent about it – not the argument that we ought to have more women directors, but the priority given to it by this Government, over and above other “women’s issues”. Yes, we want more women to be able to climb the career ladder, but what about the women who don’t even have their first foot on the ladder and are struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage jobs? (This sounds a bit like one of those ‘what about’ arguments I hate so much – of course you can care about both, and flagging up one issue doesn’t mean you’re not doing something about the other but… they’re Tories and they’re not).

So all in all today was a fairly gentle easing into the new term, which is just as well as I did my usual thing of reverting to “Kerry time” during the break, (bed at 7am Saturday…!) Tomorrow will be busy. I’m on frontbench FCO duty for a 9.30am Westminster Hall debate on “Sri Lanka and the UN’s Responsibility to Protect”, then it’s a shadow FCO team meeting, then I’ve got a Topical Q for Nick Clegg at about 11.50am, then meetings with Friends of the Earth and, later, Greenpeace.

And of course we have the main Chamber business, which is the Second Reading of the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill.

Parliament changed its hours in October, so now we start earlier on a Tuesday – 11.30am rather than 2.30pm – and have the last vote(s) at 7pm instead of 10pm. I voted for the change, not because I was particularly bothered one way or another, but because many of my colleagues – especially those with their families in London – wanted it. When I say ‘start’ by the way, I mean Chamber business. The Select Committees will have started at 9 or 9.30am, and there will be Bill Committees too, and Westminster Hall debates.

Being a frontbencher though, I’m not on any Select Committees and being in the FCO team means I very rarely have to do Bill Committees (in fact, never, so far) because the Foreign Office doesn’t tend to inspire much legislation, except on Europe. My colleague, Emma Reynolds, who is shadow Europe Minister, has to do all sorts of committees and she was at the Despatch Box in the Chamber today, facing Bill Cash, Mark Reckless et al.

What I do have though, is quite a lot of meetings, and the advantage of the 2.30pm start on a Tuesday was that I could get through a good few hours worth before going into the Chamber. Now it’s more likely I’ll have to see people while the main debate is going on. Of course I try to reschedule if it’s something I really want to/ have to be in the Chamber for, but that’s sometimes difficult – for example, if it’s a visiting delegation from overseas, or if we’ve only been told that morning about a Ministerial statement or an Urgent Question.

Anyway, I now have a speech on Sri Lanka to finish off…

Q to Home Secretary #feminism #VAWG

I’m not sure how widely it’s known that you can find online Hansard reports within about three hours of when it happens… It’s on the parliament website.

Here’s the question I asked the Home Secretary today, and her (OK, in fact pretty good) answer.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab):
Over the Christmas and new year period, there seemed to be an abundance of adverts and public information campaigns telling women how they could avoid being raped or sexually assaulted—for example, by not drinking too much or dressing in a certain way. Does the Home Secretary agree that this gives out entirely the wrong message—that victims are somehow responsible for the crimes being perpetrated against them—and that we ought to be sending out the message that it is never okay for men to assault women?

Mrs May:
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that we need to send out a very clear message that sexual violence against men or women is wrong. These are abhorrent crimes—rape is an abhorrent crime—and we should be doing all we can to stop them. I also agree that, although it is necessary to ensure that women, particularly young women, are aware of the potential dangers and circumstances in which they could be at risk and that they take appropriate action, it is the perpetrator of such crimes whom we should be bringing to justice. It is the perpetrator who is at fault, and we should never forget that.

I Think He’s Gay..

T-shirts like these are on sale on loads of stalls in places like Camden Market. Do people think they should be?

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Jeff Tweedy does the Black-Eyed Peas

This is still funny. “Drank!”

The Hounds of Love

Or something like that…

I’ve just been reading a Western Daily Press leader column on equal marriage and repealing the hunting ban – ie one thing the Government didn’t say they would do, and are doing, and the other thing they said they would do and are not even trying. They’re not happy about it.

There are quite a few poor lines of argument in this piece – eg saying that only 0.1% of the population would be interested in having a gay marriage. You can think the principle of equal marriage is important without wanting to have one yourself. You might even be married to someone of the opposite sex and think it’s important. I can’t see why that’s so hard for the WDP to get its head round.

They then move onto talking about hunting and say this. “In the English countryside, where the Tories are by far the strongest party, a majority of people of all classes are in favour of hunting.”

This simply isn’t true, as the League Against Cruel Sports will tell you. Even in the countryside a majority of people are against hunting. It’s very much a minority pastime. The pro-shooting lobby will also, in a similar vein, try to tell you that more than a million people in the UK take part in shooting each year. I’d really like to see where they get those figures from.

The fact is, polling shows that the public supports equal marriage (or isn’t bothered very much either way) and is against hunting. The WDP is of course free to argue its case but it shouldn’t pretend the public is on its side when it’s not.

Emails…

[I wrote this blog post about an hour ago and still haven't been able to think of a proper title. This is often the case. Maybe I should just number them?]

Every day I get emails from people who cc every single member of parliament in – they never know how to bcc, which is a particular pain when you’re looking at your emails on your phone. Their email list usually includes MPs who stood down years ago, and often newspaper columnists and celebrities and random others too. Sometimes these are valid, reasoned attempts to bring important issues to our attention. More often that not though they’re along these lines…

“As you enjoy the festive season and splash out (for a change) some of your own cash as well as sending £36,000,000,000 million per day overseas on foreign aid, may I suggest that
you save some and at least send the the 140 people, whose merry christmas meant getting canned from E-Tech in Great Yarmouth which is is receivership a belated Christmas Card or New Years Card and explain why you choose to support foreigners rather than them-they are at least entitled to an explanation-even if it is truthful and states it buys an MP a knighthood and on that basis is a bargain-after all what is 2.6 Million unemployed in the moral high ground.”

There was rather more to it than that, mostly about the ancient kingdom of Fife. I don’t know how many responses the guy will get, but I suspect he’ll get quite a lot of auto replies saying that MPs can only take up issues on behalf of their own constituents, and maybe one or two who are sufficiently riled by his tone to point out that his figures are nonsense. Mostly though he will be ignored and that will, I guess, reaffirm his worldview that MPs don’t care and are more interested in foreigners.

More worrying than this though are the mass emails we get from people who obviously have serious mental health problems. Some of those are abusive, some are desperately trying to alert MPs to perceived conspiracies or impending disaster, some make no sense at all… but it’s clear that they come from individuals who aren’t at all well. Often they’re from overseas – there are a few regular email correspondents in India for example. So there’s nothing an MP can do. In the case of UK correspondents I would hope that someone, somewhere is picking up on it and that the correspondents are getting some help, or are at least ‘within the system’ somewhere. If it’s a local person that’s what my office would try to do, although it’s always tricky trying to suggest to someone that perhaps they need medical rather than political help.

The above, by the way, is very much about people who send out mass emails, sometimes on a daily basis. There’s a separate issue about how MPs deal with constituents with mental health issues who approach them on a personal basis. Again, they’re sometimes abusive, sometimes threatening harm to themselves and/ or others, sometimes just very worried about things (which may or may not be things they need to be concerned about). We have to make a judgment call on how we deal with such cases, and it’s always very tricky.

Five songs from 2012

I’m always a little a) panicked and yet b) unconvinced by all these end of year list of the top 100 albums and such like. Panicked because I’ve rarely heard more than a handful, and I think I ought to have heard more, and unconvinced because I’m just not persuaded that there’s ever more than at the most ten great records released in any given year. So here’s just a modest top 5 of things I heard and liked in 2012.

TOY – Dead and Gone

I just love this, it’s genius, especially the last two minutes. Play it loud.

Swans – The Seer Returns

Not an easy album to get into, but it’s worth it. Very dark, atmospheric, and very long – the title track alone is over 30 minutes. They’re playing at Arnolfini in April and I have my ticket.

Antlered Man – Platoono of Uno

One of the new bands I saw at The Great Escape in Brighton last year. Very good live, and this is a great, weird track.

Tame Impala – Elephant

I’m not entirely convinced by them – they’re a bit too proggy for me – but this is a glam rock stomp, very Marc Bolan, and it’s brilliant.

Savages – City’s Full

Saw them at Thekla in 2012. They haven’t got recorded much yet, and I can’t say that any individual track has particularly grabbed me, but I like the overall sound, that Banshees/ Joy Division thing they’ve got going on.

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