Lib Dems are only on one side: the side of peace

Here’s a column I wrote for the Jewish Chronicle:

Lib Dems are only on one side: the side of peace
The blame game is the real obstacle to Middle East peace

In Hornsey & Wood Green in North London, there is a strong pro-Israel lobby and a strong pro-Palestinian lobby. When Jenny Tonge made her disgraceful and ignorant comments in the JC, calling for an inquiry into Israel taking organs in Haiti, I got emails from the pro-Israel lobby saying that the Liberal Democrats were pro-Palestinian.

When Nick Clegg then rightly sacked Baroness Tonge from the front bench, I received emails claiming that he had only done so because the “Zionist conspiracy” had got to him. Both were symptomatic of the polarization by the two sides in the Middle East conflict.

The only side the Liberal Democrats are on is the side of peace. We condemn all acts of violence and urge all parties to negotiate a lasting settlement to this crisis. A sustainable solution will only be achieved with two separate Israeli and Palestinian states, mutually recognized and internationally accepted, within secure borders based on the situation before the 1967 conflict.

Liberal Democrats condemn Hamas violence unequivocally. We believe that Hamas must move to respect the “three principles” set by the Quartet: renounce violence, recognise Israel’s right to exist and accept previous agreements.

However, we are concerned that while Hamas recognition of Israel is a necessary outcome of negotiations, it should not be interpreted so rigidly that it becomes a pre-condition that stops progress towards peace.

Searching for a solution also means swallowing some bitter pills. I hate to see the lesson that history teaches us, but the bitter truth is that dealing with unpleasant, murderous brutes is often needed to bring peace. Remember the IRA? In the end, the promise of peace and prosperity, together with negotiation, is what eventually heralded a break in the deadlock of decades and the hatred of centuries.

Entrenched positions get us nowhere. Being partisan or playing the blame is a hiding to nothing. No change, no solution.

Blame has been hurled back and forth, ricocheting between opposing sides ever since Israel’s painful birth. It is the Palestinians in the refugee camps and the ordinary citizens of Israel who suffer in this terrible game.

If there is one thing that is clear to me it is that none of the players really have the best interests of these peoples at heart. It is all about agendas and interests. That applies to the US and Iran, the UK and those countries in the region, all of whom are going to have to be willing to change the game.

We need the world to roll up its sleeves and commit itself for as long as it takes to focus all its efforts on pursuing peace and a lasting settlement. Blaming those who aren’t willing to do that is the only part of the blame game worth playing.

Thank you for the opportunity of a lifetime

Here’s my latest column for the Ham & High:

I never imagined when I was at Highgate Primary School, playing kiss chase in Highgate Woods, going to Muswell Hill Youth Club, being dropped at my aunt’s net curtaining shop in Wood Green High Road to play in the back whilst my mother went to work – or even later – when I was getting married at Haringey Civic Centre – that I would become the MP for Hornsey & Wood Green.

It makes travelling around the area rather strange now, because it’s not just my home but also my place of work and even if ‘off duty’ I see the signs of work all around – such as the 603 bus route I spent many years campaigning for with residents, the re-opened police station front counter, the double yellow lines to make a junction safer, the council flat that needed nagging to get repaired, the green space saved from over-development and so on.

It has been a great pleasure – and a privilege – to have had the opportunity to move on from being a councillor and a London Assembly member to having the platform of Parliament from which to help and run those campaigns.

I make it 28,000 plus people that have got in touch and I’ve helped over the years. Across them have been all manners of issues and questions and problems and challenges. There have also been some repeated themes. Often when people come to me it’s because they are angry – angry at how the government or the council has let them down, ignored them or forced an unwelcome decision on them.

From the war in Iraq, being complicit in torture, closing our vital local Post Offices and giving our schools less funding than over the border in Hackney through to the threats to the Whittington’s A&E – Labour have not understood how important are our principles and how vital the fabric of our life.

Even after all the campaigning to save the Whittington’s A&E, we still have the comments from Labour Health Secretary Andy Burnham only last week which led the Daily Express to report that, “Labour believes closing maternity units and A&E departments at local hospitals is the “right thing to do” to improve NHS care.”

With all our campaigning we may have frightened the government into saying nice words about the Whittington A&E at the moment, but with that attitude from right at the top in the NHS, what chances the future for the A&E under Labour? Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has stated unequivocally that he will not let London North Central NHS close the Whittington A&E – making him the only Party Leader to do so.

On the Whittington, as on many other issues, there is still much to be done. I know some people are cynical about politicians who only pop up just before an election, suddenly declaring their commitment to an area and making promises for the future.

Well in my case – you can judge me not just on my promises for the future, but my record too. If you take a look at my website,www.LynneFeatherstone.org, you can read my blog and news releases from over the years – in and out of election time! – with more details about many of the issues the 28,000 have raised, the questions I’ve asked in Parliament and the campaigns I’ve led or helped with.

I’m not standing for re-election promising that I’ll start doing things for our community; I’m standing for re-election because I want to continue winning victories for our community.

It has been an absolute privilege and a pleasure to serve the people of Hornsey & Wood Green. I remember the night in May 2005 when I was elected to Parliament pledging in my acceptance speech to be the hardest working MP this constituency had ever seen. And I hope that people feel that I have delivered on that pledge.

It's been a privilege

Lynne Featherstone with residents surveysSo – bets are on that today’s the day when the date will be set for the general election! And that means people in Hornsey & Wood Green get their chance to cast their verdict not just on my promises for the future but also (for the first time!) my record as an MP.

So it seems appropriate to put up my latest column for the Muswell Hill Flyer and the Highgate Handbook – on what a privilege it’s been to be the MP for the last five years for the area where I grew up, went to school – and got married. And as you can see from the photo – sometimes it’s been tough to keep up with all the issues from residents!

I make it over 28,000 people I’ve helped – so a particular thank you too to all my staff over the years who have assisted. Thank you.

It’s been a privilege

It’s hard to believe that five years have already passed since I was elected Member of Parliament for Hornsey & Wood Green.

It has been a complete privilege and joy to serve this community. There have been so many battles to fight – great and small – standing up for local people. Even what may seem a small issue to others can be a major issue for those directly involved. And sometimes it has been the petty swipe of unfairness that is the wrong that needs righting.

Take the newspaper seller, Alex Chobur, who got fired by the distribution company for a newspaper for drinking water whilst at work. That is the sort of employment practice we should have left behind with the Victorians – but he contacted me and, with the help of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, we got the firm to change its rules to be rather more humane.

On a similar theme – making those in charge remember to put a little bit of humanity back into their behavior – I remember also the mother a paraplegic child who had waited five years to swap their flat, which had a long narrow staircase that the child had to be carried up and down, for a ground floor one. Time after time Haringey Council said it could not find a more suitable property – until I got the press involved and thanks to the magic of bad publicity what had been for years a “no” became a “yes”.

Sometimes (well quite often) it is Haringey Council driving people insane either by taking no notice of local people – over a planning issue, empty grit bins in the snow, potholes in your road deep enough to dive into – to the very serious issues of fair funding (or lack of it) for our children at Haringey schools or the dreadful events around failures in child protection. It is not chance that Haringey Council was assessed by the Comprehensive Area Assessment (the body that rates councils right across the country) as the worst council in all of London.

And don’t even get me started on the threat the Whittington A&E! Insanity!

The economy, however, dominates. Vince Cable (who wins all the polls on who people want to be Chancellor) is quite clear that we must address the horrendous deficit – but not before the recovery is sure. He is absolutely right to also say we must break up the banks so they are no longer too big to fail and able to gamble safe in the knowledge that if it all goes wrong – someone else will have to bail them out. Once but never again. Changing our financial system not only makes economic sense – but it is the fair course of action too.

The same applies to our plans to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000, taking millions out of income tax and putting an extra £700 in the pocket of the average working person. That would be paid for by closing tax loopholes and bringing capital gains tax in line with income tax – because that’s the fair way to put together a tax system.

I was driven into politics by the best of motives – to fight injustice and unfairness. But there is still so much to fight for and to battle against – which is why I hope my term in Parliament is but my first.

General election nearly here – at last!

Vince Cable speaking in ParliamentHere’s my latest column for the Ham & High:

The betting is that Gordon Brown will go to the Palace shortly and call the general election – finally! – for May 6.

This election will be different for me in two ways – the first time I’ll be fighting it as an MP seeking re-election and the first time my party will be fighting it with such a high profile and popular Shadow Chancellor as Vince Cable. The national polls repeatedly say that he’s the most popular choice for Chancellor – and that’s what I hear on the doorsteps in Haringey too.

Door knocking never fails to be interesting – because people are infinitely interesting. You couldn’t or shouldn’t be doing this job if you don’t think that. And all politics is local in reality – even when we speak in strange tongues at the Mother of all Parliaments, it’s still about how we are affected in our own lives at home or at work.

Take the woman who told me that she never voted because she didn’t need anything from the state. Her children went to private school; she had a private GP and so on. I had a go. What did she think would happen if she had an emergency accident or illness – or if one of her children needed urgent medical attention? So – having got her attention – I told her about the Labour Government’s health plans with the threatened closure of the Whittington A&E and of our massive fight to stop the closure. When you or your children need emergency medical help – not much use saying that you go privately – you need an ambulance and an A&E that is on your doorstep. You can’t live as if you are in a protected bubble. Yes – money can buy many things, but a society where the super-rich isolate themselves is not only wrong – it creates a divide in society that damages everyone, on both sides of that divide.

We know from detailed research that the most economically successful countries and those with the happiest people are those where the gap between rich and poor is the narrowest.

Yes of course small class sizes in private schools are a fantastic privilege – and the reason that children do well in the private sector – regardless of their innate ability. That’s why the Liberal Democrat ‘pupil premium’ would put £2.5 billion extra into schools, including those in Haringey – letting heads and governors decide how best to spend it to close that advantage the private sector has.

I don’t think this woman will change her children’s schooling even if the state classes were smaller and that is her right – but for parents who could never afford to send their children privately this will make a huge difference. And here in Haringey – it will end Labour’s unfair funding in our schools as our children get £1,300 per head less than pupils in Camden, Islington and Hackney – grossly unfair and equivalent to 1,000 + extra teachers.

And then – I knocked on the door of a woman who told me that she was thinking of giving up working because it wasn’t worth it. She was very poorly paid, could barely make ends meet – and actually thought she would be better off on benefits. So I talked to her about the LibDem manifesto pledge on fair taxes – that no-one would pay any tax on their first £10,000 of earnings (which not only takes the very low paid out of tax but puts £700 back in the average earner’s pocket). Helping people sustain themselves – helps all of us – and putting money back in people’s pockets means they can start spending again – which will help our struggling local high streets.

She said her children were nearing the end of their school and college days – but that there was no work around and she was worried about them having no future. I shared her concerns about young people becoming a lost generation – and the dreadful loss of self worth that comes with believing you have no future.

I explained that we are promising that no young person would stay on JobSeeker’s allowance for more than 90 days. Every young person would then be able to get work experience, training or education education. It is so difficult to get a job without experience – but how can you get experience when no one will give you a job? We will actually pay a ‘training allowance’ so that young people can afford to do internships in their chosen field.

I could go on endlessly – every door has its own story to tell. But time and again, even if at the start of the story it’s nothing about politics, somewhere along the line the decisions we make in Parliament – the laws we pass, the budgets we set – have an impact on the story. That’s why the choice of who represents us is so important.

Better battery recycling in Haringey

Here’s my latest column for the Muswell Hill Flyer and the Highgate Handbook:

Recycling batteriesI try to be good with recycling – but when it comes to batteries it is sometimes quite difficult because there isn’t an easy and convenient place to put them locally.

We have battery recycling bins at Parliament – so that makes it easy for me. But how many of us do bother to take batteries to the recycling centres? I don’t know – but I suspect the odd one or two just gets put in the normal rubbish.

So – I just wanted to tell you about a success my Liberal Democrat colleagues on Haringey Council had in the budget debate. Haringey Council agreed to implement Liberal Democrats plans that will provide new green incentives and better recycling in the borough.

My LibDem colleagues proposed that Haringey Council provide new battery recycling services in libraries, community buildings and schools, and new green incentives for local traders and residents to move to ‘greener’ vehicles by reducing parking fees for the least polluting cars.

Even better – the new measures will be paid for by freezing allowances for councillors to the tune of £14,000!

This follows fast on the heals of the new rules passed by the European Union which mean that as of February 2010 shops must have battery recycling bins for residents to use if they sell the equivalent of 1 pack a day. It makes it so much easier to be good – if there is a facility for us to recycle things like batteries easily available. I went to a Tesco local next to my office in Hornsey High Street to celebrate their new battery recycling facilities installed to meet the EU rules.

Until now, people who wanted to do the right thing had to make their way to one of Haringey’s two recycling centres – and that’s not the best way to encourage recycling of some of our most hazardous waste. Batteries are so bad for the environment, and most people do want to do their bit for our planet – it’s only right to make it as easy as possible for people to do just that.

As an added bonus: in terms of encouraging greener vehicles – Haringey Council agreed to the LibDem proposals that there would be free parking for the greenest business vehicles and free parking for the greenest residents’ vehicles.

Hurrah!

Whittington A+E: public meeting

Here’s my latest column for the Ham & High:

Tonight, Thursday March 4, I have arranged a public meeting, where local residents will get the chance to hear at first hand what the hospital bosses have to say about the threat to the A&E at the Whittington Hospital. To represent the NHS, I have invited Rachel Tyndall, Chair of the North Central London (NCL) review panel, the body that has put forward the proposals to close the Whittington A&E, and Richard Sumray, who is chair of Haringey Primary Care Trust.

This will also be an opportunity for you to ask questions – directly to the powers that be. And I want you to be there. If we can show just how strong local feelings are about this threat, I think we might have a chance of stopping them. Following the petitions, the march and demo and the early meetings on the Whittington, we now have the NHS Strategy Document – so we now know from this latest document that there are seven draft ‘options’ for the future of the Whittington. Four out of the seven show an end to 24/7 A&E at the Whittington.

That is still deeply worrying – though some progress on the first leaked letter from Rachel Tyndall to the CEOs and Medical Directors of the relevant hospitals which had four options, all of which completely axed A&E at the Whittington.

This letter was withdrawn after the first round of outcry, but it leaves an underlying belief that the Whittington is on the hit list and that however long and complicated the document supporting the now draft seven options is – that early letter showed which way the thinking was going.

Since then the NHS line is that ‘nothing has been decided’ – but we need to know how that decision will be made. What are the criteria? Will we who use the Whittington and cannot believe the madness of the proposed closure have any real power in that consultation?  We also need to guard against being played off against each other as to which of UCH, the Royal Free, Chase Farm, Barnet, the Whittington and North Mids get to retain or offer which service.

Myself and Jeremy Corbyn agreed on the march last Saturday that we will convene all ten MPs across the five boroughs to meet with the decision makers and Ministers to let them know that we will not be divided. No divide and rule – across all five boroughs we will fight for our local health services.

We know that if the Whittington A&E goes, so too does a range of other services –  maternity, intensive therapy unit (ITU), proper training for medical students and the ability for local GPs to make emergency referrals to the hospital.

And if they go – how long before the NHS decides to let the rest wither on the vine? We have seen it all before. We marched last Saturday past the Royal Northern Hospital  – gone but not forgotten.

No-one voted for this. It was never in the Labour manifesto. The Labour Minister in answer to my many questions says ‘it is a local matter’. And yet – these quango servants to the Government hold our health in their hands – and they are not accountable to us.

They must be stopped. This is our life, our health, our NHS!

The meeting will take place as follows: Thursday, 4th March from 8 pm, Greig City Academy, Hornsey, N8 7NU.

To access the assembly hall where the meeting will be held, please use the entrance from Hillfield Avenue and follow the signs. If you have any questions, just call my office on 020 8340 5459.

UPDATE: Meeting has now taken place and you can read about it here.

Wood Green police station: latest plans

Wood Green police station film screenshotHere’s my latest column for the Ham & High:

The police are planning to expand their presence in Wood Green – keeping the existing police station in use but also moving the front counter to the Fishmongers Arms (right next to the Civic Centre, closer to the centre of Wood Green, closer to where people congregate and closer to the crime hotspots).

I was impressed with the new front counter – not yet in use – when I went with Cllr Robert Gorrie (Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Haringey Council) to see it and meet the local Commander, Dave Grant.

Having staffed and open police stations in the heart of our community is central to the fight against crime and the fear of crime. It gives us a police service that knows its community and whose community knows it. That’s why I fought for so longer to get the Muswell Hill front counter reopened.

The new front counter in Wood Green is much better equipped and located than the current one. It’s all ready to go – brand, spanking new – and has the advantage that local people would be able to use the front counter to report their problems in a much more peaceful and calm atmosphere – no longer needing to mix with the less salubrious side of station life with those who have to report to the police station, and so on.

If the existing building is also kept in use for police services, such as cells and a base for patrol cars etc, then this means overall a bigger and better police presence in Wood Green. Hurrah!

If!

We need to be sure that moving the front counter doesn’t become an excuse to cut back, sell off property – and leave us with fewer services. That has to be the concern in these times of economic uncertainty.

And then there’s still the question of exactly what policing will be done from the existing police station building. The police have promised a public consultation on that – including the possibility of moving the front counter back from the Fishmongers Arms, if it isn’t a success in its new location and local people want it moved back.

We also need to make sure that any building work on the old police station preserves its historic front, which is a real architectural gem that adds to our community. Last time the police made proposals for the station the local community was rightly up in arms at the insensitive architectural designs. That planning application was withdrawn and we await a new one, due to be submitted in the autumn.

So we should be due two chances to have our say – the public consultation on police services in the area and also the planning application for the Victorian police station building.

But ahead of that the police want to try out starting to use the new facilities at the Fishmongers Arms – moving their front counter service from the existing police station to the new location.

I know some people have been skeptical about this, worried that it’s a way for the police to preempt those two chances for us to have our say later in the year.

But if it is a genuine trial, making use of new expanded premises and with a commitment written in blood that the final decisions will only come after we’ve been consulted – then it means we get to try out the new services sooner and it makes for a better decision in the end if there’s some practical experience to draw on.

So this is a debate which will run for some time – and do let me know your own views.

You can also watch my latest film about Wood Green police station: