Category Archives: #

All-male panels: is there still any excuse for them?

Just before recess I was at a WWF event in Parliament on environmental issues, with rather a large panel of speakers – all male, all white and, with one exception, all middle-aged. I’ve now received an invite to another ‘green’ event, from the Aldersgate Group: a ‘Dragon’s Den’ type event on 11th September with the hashtag is #climatesummit. The pitches will answer: “What bold pledge from the Climate Summit would most effectively close the emissions gap and help you deliver a low carbon economy?”

Here are the names of those making the pitches and the names of the green ‘dragons’. There will be some occasions when all-male panels are OK – in a very specialist field, for example – but this is a pretty broad issue. Surely we can do better?

Business Leaders
– Paul Kelly, ASDA, Vice President, Corporate Affairs
– Jonathon Counsell, British Airways, Head of Environment
– Richard Folland, JP Morgan, European Energy and Environment Advisor
– Steven Heath, Knauf Insulation, Director – Public Affairs and Strategy
– Mike Barry, M&S, Director of Sustainable Business
– Andre Fourie, SAB Miller, Senior Manager – Environmental Value

Dragon Panel
– Sir David King, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Special Representative for Climate Change
– David Nussbaum, WWF, Chief Executive
– Nick Robins, UNEP, Co-Director, Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Financial System
– Andrew Raingold, Aldersgate Group, Executive Director (Chair)

I hope that with Labour conference coming up people will have taken note of the criticisms raised last year, and we’ll won’t see much of this going on there. At the moment I only know about the panels I’m on – and they’re obviously not all-male!

What is mitochrondrial disease and why are MPs debating it today?

Later today, after the PM’s statement and a general debate on hospital car parking charges, there will be a debate on “Mitochondrial replacement techniques and public safety”. Here’s a BBC report which explains very simply what it’s about – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28986843 – and an educational animated video narrated by none other than Bill Nighy http://www.thelilyfoundation.org.uk/animation/

Basically, it’s about adding DNA from a third person during IVF to combat genetic disease. Some people don’t like the idea of this and have tabled a motion today calling for a delay in introducing new laws. I suspect – seeing the names that have been listed in support of the motion – their concern has more to do with their religious outlook than with scientific caution. We saw a similar debate over the creation of ‘hybrid embryos’ (for the purposes of genetic research, not for implanting) when the last Labour government passed the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

I admit I need to find out more about the science. It’s times like this that I wish my old comrade, Doug Naysmith, genetic scientist and MP for Bristol North West till he stood down in 2010, was still in Parliament; he was always a good person to run such things by. But my instinct is that if we can, through research such as this, save even a few lives, then it’s something we should be doing.

It’s mitochrondrial awareness week soon – it starts on 14th September – and you can find out more about that here: http://www.mitoaction.org/awareness And here’s the text of today’s motion and the names of its sponsors. This is just a general debate, not a debate on legislation, so it doesn’t mean we will/ won’t be doing anything specific as a result.

Fiona Bruce
Robert Flello
Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson
John Pugh
Mark Durkan
Jim Shannon
Ian Paisley
Mrs Caroline Spelman
Martin Vickers
Mr Nigel Dodds
Jim Dobbin
Mr David Burrowes
Jeremy Lefroy
Jacob Rees-Mogg
Mr Laurence Robertson
Glyn Davies
Ms Margaret Ritchie
Mr Ronnie Campbell
Mr David Amess
Bob Blackman

That this House takes note of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s most recent scientific review into the safety and efficacy of mitochondrial replacement techniques which highlights concerns for subsequent generations of children born through maternal spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer; welcomes the recent comments of scientists including Professor Lord Winston that, prior to the introduction of such techniques, more research ought to be undertaken and a full assessment conducted of the potential risk to children born as a result; and calls upon the Government, in light of these public safety concerns, to delay bringing forward regulations on mitochondrial replacement.

Consultation on council wards

There’s a review starting on council ward boundaries in Bristol. Due to new housing being built in some areas and demographic changes, some wards are deemed to be far too big – this is particularly an issue in Cabot, Lawrence Hill and Ashley wards – while others are by comparison too small.

This could be addressed by some wards having three councillors, and others only one – at the moment all wards have two councillors – or by changing ward boundaries. The overall number of councillors has been fixed at 70, and they need to ensure roughly one councillor per 5000 voters. I’d also be keen to ensure that natural communities are respected, and where possible artificial wards, crossing obvious geographical boundaries, are avoided. It’s not an easy task!

You can have your say here:

https://bristol.citizenspace.com/business-change/review-of-polling-districts-and-polling-places-201

The boundary reviews for parliamentary constituencies, by the way, will take place after the 2015 election and come into effect in time for 2020. Bristol West is becoming far too big, and Bristol East is the smallest seat, so it could mean that those bits of east Bristol which are somewhat bizarrely now classed as Bristol West (like Easton – the clue is in the name!) could end up back in East, where they were until 2010.

Some thoughts on ‘Prevent’

The Prime Minister is currently in the Chamber giving a statement on the EU Council, Ukraine, ISIS and Gaza. Some had called for parliament to be recalled over the summer to discuss the latter two topics, but it didn’t happen. There’s no mechanism for MPs to force a recall of parliament, it’s entirely in the Government’s hands. Or rather, it’s up the Government to request a recall and then it’s up to the Speaker whether it’s granted. I’m not sure whether the Speaker can act unilaterally in recalling parliament too – maybe he can.

I’d have been happy to come back for a debate, as I did last year for the Syria vote (although last year though I had to fly back from South Africa, where I was due to speak at a conference; this year it would have only meant a train journey from Bristol!)

With hindsight the Labour-led moves then to stop the Government backing military intervention – which ultimately led to the US refraining from intervention too – looks to be even more important that I thought at the time. I voted against intervention as I don’t think the Government had thought through what it was meant to achieve, or which opposition groups we could end up supporting/ arming, or what the exit strategy would be. As I listen to the Prime Minister’s statement now, it seems that he is focused on domestic security issues, dealing with a possible terrorist threat associated with those returning from fighting with Islamic State and counter-radicalisation measures.

Of course I’m concerned that we tackle this, and I’m pleased to see the Prime Minister say that the Prevent programme will be put on a statutory footing, having previously cut the funding substantially, from £17m to £3m as Yvette Cooper has highlighted: http://www.yvettecooper.com/britain_can_do_more_to_halt_extremists

I’m also concerned however that the horror at the activities of ISIS, and repugnance at what they stand for, does not spill over into Islamophobic sentiment in our communities. (As indeed, condemnation of Israel’s actions in Gaza must not be used to justify anti-Semitism). Bristol has a good track record on community cohesion and we need to do all we can to maintain that.

Shortly after I was first elected in 2005 the July 7th bombings happened. The Government drew together a group of young people in Bristol to talk through some of the issues. The young people were drawn from a wide cross-section of faith communities: Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Christian, Hindu, even Buddhist. And therein, I felt, was the problem. The multi-faith voice can be a strong one, and exert a powerful influence, but if we’re serious about community cohesion we need to reach out far beyond those who can be found within the embrace of organised religion. I hope that the revised Prevent program will do this.

Back to work

So… we are back at “work” (more on what I did on my so-called holidays to come later) and I have a new term resolution to start blogging again… we will see whether I manage to stick to it.

I’ve just been down to the Chamber for DWP questions, and managed to get in on Question 1, asking about delays in benefits assessments. My office was chasing up a delayed claim a week or so ago and we were told that in Bristol, Atos – who are about to lose their contract but are still doing the job at the moment – are looking at claims from early 2013. That means that people with disabilities and/ or mental health issues have been waiting for over 18 months to see whether they can get Employment Support Allowance, causing huge stress and anxiety, as well as financial hardship. Here’s shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves being quoted on it recently: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/atos-tests-failed-75-disabled-4126386

In Bristol we were told that the delays were partly down to difficulties in recruiting people to carry out medical assessments, and also because a backlog of around 3000 claims have been redistributed from elsewhere to Atos offices around the country, adding to the workload. This is clearly not acceptable.

The other, related, issue I’ve been looking at is the backdating of payments when someone’s claim is refused but succeeds on appeal. This can sometimes take months – I’ve been talking to two people today, who both succeeded on appeal; one had to wait around 3 months for a decision and the other has found out today that her appeal has been successful, having had her claim rejected last autumn. During this time they’ve been on (significantly lower) JSA rates rather than ESA.

A successful appeal – barring any interim deterioration in health – means that the original decision was wrong. And that means the claimant should be entitled to their ESA being restored back to the original date, and backpayments given, which can amount to hundreds of pounds – and sometimes even more, given the appalling delays. I’m seeing signs that the DWP are trying to avoid paying up. I’ve collected quite a few examples already, and have spoken to Rachel Reeves about it today too.

This is about people getting what they’re entitled to – and they’re not asking for much. Indeed, one of those I mentioned above – described by health specialists as a “textbook case of ME” -spent nearly 20 years not claiming anything, relying on her parents, until I intervened. Some people can’t go ‘back to work’ today. They’re not fit to work. Is it too much to ask for the DWP to show a bit of compassion?

Blue Finger/ Metrobus letter

A cross-party group of us has written to the Mayor, Metrobus, and the leader of South Gloucs council calling for a substantial rethink on the Metrobus project. Here it is.

From Kerry McCarthy MP, Charlotte Leslie MP, and Councillors Daniella Radice, Lesley Alexander, Estella Tincknell, Gill Kirk, Claire Hiscott, Bill Payne, Wayne Harvey, Rob Telford, Tim Malnick, Gus Hoyt, Charlie Bolton

We the undersigned call on you to reconsider elements of the Hengrove-Northern Fringe metrobus project.

We believe that low carbon efficient public transport AND local, accessible food and places to grow it, are both a vital part of the future to Bristol’s position as both a sustainable city and the ‘Green capital of Europe’.

We support any action that can be taken to ensure that Bristol and South Gloucester local authorities find innovative and collaborative solutions to transportation and congestion challenges, without compromising the excellent and valuable work that is producing food from some of our best land.

As such, we call on you to devise and implement alternative public transport solutions which will NOT result in the loss of ANY Grade 1 agricultural land along the M32 corridor, specifically at Stapleton allotments, Feed Bristol, Sims Hill, or on any former market-garden sites. Any proposed transport solution should look first at brown field sites, and should resolve rather than cause  congestion in the local area. It should not compromise the use of high quality agricultural land by important and effective charities, community groups and local people, for the benefit of all. We note the proposed changes you suggested at cabinet on 1st July but need to be convinced that these make any meaningful difference to the land affected.

We are also concerned about the proposal to run a section of the new road across Stoke Park. This historic piece of landscape is valuable not only as the ‘green lungs’ for North Bristol but also because it contains ancient woodland, rich meadows full of rare species and a number of heritage buildings.

We believe the loss of such land is utterly incompatible with Bristol’s ambitions to be a Green Capital, and we urge you to think again.

Glenda gives the Government a good talking to

There have been some excellent speeches from some formidable Labour women in today’s debate on “Chaos and Waste at the Department for Work and Pensions” (that was our title, it’s now been changed to “The Performance of….” But here’s the queen of them all, Glenda Jackson, on top form.

Today’s debate on chaos at the DWP

Later today I will be in the Chamber for a debate called by Labour on “Performance of the Department for Work and Pensions”. Here is the text of our motion, which we will be voting on at 10pm. It’s worth noting that usually the Government would table its own amendment in response to an Opposition motion, usually along the lines of ‘delete everything after “this House” and add glowing praise of the Government’s performance to date. They don’t appear to have done so today, so one can only conclude they agree with Labour on this occasion…

OPPOSITION DAY (3RD ALLOTTED DAY)

Until 10.00pm (Standing Order No. 9(3))

Performance of the Department for Work and Pensions

Edward Miliband

Rachel Reeves

Ed Balls

Ms Harriet Harman

Chris Bryant

Ms Rosie Winterton

That this House notes that after £612 million being spent, including £131 million written off or written down, the introduction of Universal Credit is now years behind schedule, with no clear plan for how, when, or whether full implementation will be achievable or represent value for money; further notes the admission of the Minister of State for Disabled People in oral evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee on 11 June 2014 that over 700,000 people are still waiting for a Work Capability Assessment, and the report of the Office for Budget Responsibility in March 2014 that found that projected spending on Employment and Support Allowance has risen by £800 million since December; recognises the finding of the Committee of Public Accounts in its First Report, HC 280, that Personal Independence Payment delays have created uncertainty, stress and financial costs for disabled people and additional budgetary pressures for Government; further recognises that the Work Programme has failed to meet its targets, the unfair bedroom tax risks costing more than it saves, and other DWP programmes are performing poorly or in disarray; and calls on the Government to publish (a) the risk register and other documentation relating to the delivery of Universal Credit as a Freedom of Information tribunal has ruled it should, (b) the time in which it will guarantee that disabled people will receive an assessment for PIP and (c) a full risk assessment showing the potential impact of delays, delivery problems, contract failures and underperformance on (i) people receiving or entitled to benefits, (ii) departmental budgets and spending plans and (iii) the Government’s welfare cap.

 

Kafka’s “The Passport Office”

Someone has sent me a transcript of this conversation with the Passport Office.

Passport office: we can’t guarantee when your passport will be sent or when you will receive it

ME: what can I do?

Him: You can’t do anything,

ME: Can’t I pay to upgrade,

HIM: We can’t talk about that you have to ring this number…..

ME: But that’s your number

HIM: We can’t talk about it until you mention it.

Me: Ok I’m mentioning it and in fact I can categorically say I want it

Him: We can’t guarantee that they will do anything and they may not respond to you but you can then apply again for an urgent upgrade after that and you may be lucky that time…….

There was an Urgent Question on the passport chaos last Thursday, when I tried but unfortunately didn’t get called to ask the Home Secretary a question. Labour has now called an Opposition Day debate on it for tomorrow (Wednesday). I won’t be able to make a full speech as I have other meetings scheduled which can’t be moved, but I will be there for some of it. The Home Secretary announced last week that those who have to fast-track their applications because of delays won’t have to pay the additional £55 fee if their case is classed as urgent. She wasn’t able to say what guidelines would be given to allow staff to decide what is or isn’t urgent. She also wasn’t able to say how people will be able to convince passport office staff that their applications are urgent if they can’t get through on the phones (or if they end up in a conversation like the one above!)

Labour will be calling tomorrow for those who applied in good time, but have already been forced to pay the extra £55 to have their applications fast-tracked because of delays, to have that money refunded.

Here’s what the daughter of my 94 year old constituent – who we helped get her passport the day before she was due to go on a cruise, her first overseas travel for 20 years – had to say to the Daily Mail:

“Families hit by the passport crisis are being asked to pay £55 extra a person to save their summer holidays – on top of the £72.50 standard fee. Mrs May this morning admitted the Passport Office will put more staff and resources in place to deal with a backlog of applications caused by a surge in people wanting to go abroad.

Angry families said they were being held to ransom.

Audrey Strong, 67, from Timsbury, near Bath, said her 94-year-old mother paid the levy to be able to go on a cruise. She added: ‘They’re holding people to ransom. It’s disgusting – I don’t think she should have to pay all that money, but she did it because she would have lost her holiday otherwise.’”

 

 

 

The #SavetheFleece Campaign goes national

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have recently become a patron of the Music Venue Trust. They’ve emailed me today to say that they too have initiated a petition, this time directed at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, calling for a review of noise complaints legislation. As you will see from their email, this has in part been inspired by the potential threat to the Fleece.

It’s got some way to go before it gets as many signatures as the Fleece petition, which was at 36,000 the last time I looked, so I’d encourage you all to sign up to this one too. Here’s their email:

“I am writing to you to let you know that in response to a swathe of threats to small music venues from noise complaints, the Music Venue Trust has today launched a petition asking the Secretary of State for the Environment to carry out a review of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 that relate to Noise and the serving of Noise Abatement notices. The petition is online here:

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/65582

Within our campaign, we have sought to highlight the responsibilities of venues to be well managed and act with their local communities, respecting the rights of their neighbours. We feel that it is apparent from the recent experiences of the Blind Tiger in Brighton, the Night and Day in Manchester and now the potential threat to the Fleece in Bristol that some entirely sensible policies to protect those individual rights are, unfortunately, open to abuse for commercial gain by individuals and developers; in all three cases, a venue with a very good record and with no complaints has been subject to a complaint or potential complaint from a new occupier or developer. We think the existing Acts should be reviewed to see if there is any potential to add a “pre-existing usage and standard customs and practice” amendment.”

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