Blue Finger in Parliament

So today I was in Westminster Hall for a debate on Human Rights in North Korea (in my capacity as shadow FCO Minister) and being somewhat slow to leave at the end, I then realised that the next debate was about local plans and safeguarded land… Seizing the opportunity to ask the Planning Minister about protection for agricultural land and Bristol’s Blue Finger, I stayed on, in the hope of making a brief intervention. Here’s what was said:

Me: I want to ask the Minister about the best and most versatile agricultural land being specifically singled out for extra protection. We have a big issue in Bristol with the plans to tarmac over grade 1 agricultural land. Is it not important that we protect the best soil for growing food, rather than use it for other purposes? It simply cannot be replaced elsewhere.

Nick Boles, the Planning Minister: The hon. Lady has singled out another category of land where the preservation of current use is given great priority—the highest quality agricultural land. The national planning policy framework is clear that, to the extent that greenfield land has to be allocated for development—unfortunately, some does—less high quality agricultural land should be preferred and that grade 1 agricultural land, which is the highest quality, should be preserved for agriculture where at all possible.

I tweeted earlier that he’d said ‘unless absolutely necessary’ rather than ‘where at all possible’. The above is from Hansard, so I obviously misremembered. The Minister then went on to say, re the green belt:

“…the local authority has to pass a very high test: it has to be able to demonstrate that exceptional circumstances justify taking a particular site out of the green belt or redrawing a green-belt boundary, perhaps to swap land currently in the green belt for land that is not, but is of greater environmental importance. Those are the kinds of arguments that local authorities need to bring forward and the kinds of evidence they need to provide to satisfy a planning inspector that any such proposal is reasonable.”

The link to the full debate is here.

 

 

Poem for Tony Benn

At the memorial to Tony Benn held in Bristol on May 1st the Bristol-based poet Miles Chambers performed a wonderful tribute to Tony Benn, which he’d written especially for the occasion. I hope we’ll get the video footage up at some point, but for  now, here are the words. Not just a tribute, but a call to arms.

TONY BENN

You dared to be a Daniel
Dared to stand alone
Dared to have a purpose firm!
Dared to make it known

The aristocratic gentleman of peerage
Who won the hearts of millions of working class men

You swapped your silver spoon for a stainless steel one
but… kept your golden tongue which took you all the way to Big Ben

That familiar smoking pipe of comfort and authority, illustrates
your articulation, your privileged upbringing, your education, and your charm

The romantic side, which bought the park bench that you proposed on
Symbolizing a loving wife who protected you from harm!

You lived a good life, wanting for nothing… But your struggles were not in vain
Quite often at a sacrifice to yourself with little personal gain

Thank you for the privilege of meeting you, of experiencing you
You were not always right… but you were convicted with everything you do

Thank you for not failing to understand, for not failing to relate
for speaking for the voice of the oppressed

Thank you for fighting for the downtrodden despite your position,
ensuring we were heard and we got a portion of the best

You weren’t always right
but you were always 100% into the fight

Master of technology, whizz-kid electronically
Concorde given a home in the city
Nuclear powered lights making Bristol look pretty
War in Iraq should not have been a possibility

 Black people love you Tony for joining with Paul against the racial
discrimination which tried to keep us back

We love you Tony for cutting out the nonsense
and helping form the race relations act

We can see when you looked at us Tony
you didn’t see class or sex or people of a different race

You saw injustice, possibilities, potential,
Hearts full of conviction and passion just like you

Black people love you TONY, ‘cause you stood up
for our cause despite how the oppressor made a fuss

We wanted to make you one of the Brothers show you
how to cook curry goat, bang dominoes and teach you how to cuss!

Touring the country You’re the People’s King
Making us aware of corrupt systems, whilst charmingly engaging

We were fixed in attention at your rantings
Inspired and informed by your sincerity
Challenged, perplexed, confronted by your discourse

You left us thinking rise up to injustice and be the best that you can be
We can be ourselves, be all that we are and do all we want to do!

Rise up and speak when you know things are just not right

It’s just us, we all have to live together in the same place, right here and now
Let’s make good for all of us just believe we can, don’t worry about how

Tony… We’ll not be afraid to shine a light
Put a candle on what’s not right

Let it shine from the hilltops
Make it known until injustice stops

Carry your candle run to the darkness
Seek out the lonely the tired and worn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle and go light your world

Let’s dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm!
And dare to make it known

 

 

Tony Benn

 

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.

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