Was it because she is a girlie?

Sitting having dinner before Any Questions? on Friday night, we (guests and presenter) were chatting about the Damian Green arrest and the Home Secretary not knowing that he was going to be arrested.

I said – only half-joking – given the acting Commissioner of the Met had phoned Boris Johnson and David Cameron – maybe it was an equalities issue – no need to tell the girlie? Interestingly, John Reid on his feet in the Commons had made it clear that when he was Home Secretary it would be unthinkable for there to be a pending arrest of a member of the house and he not be told. He said he thought Ms Home Secretary was remarkably ‘placid’ about this.

And all this rubbish from Jacqui Smith about operational independence of the police – yes that is vital but informing the Home Secretary doesn’t mean she would have to intervene or even comment. Simply saying ‘thank you for informing me and make sure all protocols are followed’ would have been adequate.

Anyway – as it was a private conversation as all such are – all I will say is that I now wish to float this idea publicly – that Ms Smith is telling the truth and she didn’t know and I would propose that the boys obviously all thought they should handle it without telling the girlie! Shame on you boys!

Appearing on Any Questions?

Friday was a long, long day! Crack of dawn start to get to York to meet various youth and equality projects. First stop was to meet the Equalities spokesperson at the Council (LibDem minority control) – Cllr Keith Aspden – who briefs me on the groups I will be meeting.

A quicke radio interview with Minster Radio and then off to meet the CVS – the Community Voluntary Sector – who have fantastic facilities where a number of local voluntary groups operate from as well as facilitating rooms for meetings. Seemed a very well-developed and properly functioning centre – and a model for how perseverance over many years can eventually pay off with proper facilities. And proper facilities, well-designed and pleasant – then in turn create the right environment to encourage all of this good work to continue. A lot of work goes on here to get young people, often the most challenging young people, into work and/or training.

Mad dash onto Castlegate Centre – which is a fantastic drop-in and one stop shop for 16-25 year olds. The downstairs is all modern and beautifully designed with the help of young people to make it an environment they feel comfortable about coming to. And they do. Remarkably successful – young people can just drop in and find help for any number of issues – be it housing, counselling, training – whatever. A pretty inspiring outfit – and again – the people who had fought for it and were running it – totally committed and dedicated.

I then visit York Racial Equality Network, where about 25 people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds have come to tell me their anger and disappointment that the vital work they do is under threat. The Council support them – but the Commission for Equality and Human Rights has, despite assurances, not funded them this year and this is threatening their very existence. Whilst it would be true to say that York is not the diversity capital of this country, nevertheless there is a growing number of black and ethnic minority residents. Add in an influx of Easter Europeans and the issues of pressures on public services, social cohesion and the rest are just beginning to arise. Better to tackle these in proper and timely fashion than wait until real problems hit us. Also there are issues that arise when numbers are relatively few rather than many – issues of isolation, exclusion and race hate incidents.

The York Racial Equality Network is the only organisation doing the work that is needed in this area. Indeed, when the Commission needs to consult or disseminate information in the York area, they themselves turn to the YREN to do this for you.

If the Commission is not minded to reverse their decision (as I have written to them to ask that they do), then I’d very much like to know how they expect the work to support individuals experiencing racial harassment, victimisation and discrimination to continue – and who would be there to disseminate information from the Commission and respond to consultations.

Last stop of the day in York is to the University to meet students who I help launch a campaign against ID cards. Outside of the usual reasons – that they won’t work, won’t stop terrorism, won’t help identity fraud etc – the students are fearful that they are now going to be pressured into having an ID card.

Train leaves York late – so I miss my connection to Maidstone in Kent where I am going to do any questions. I finally arrive and have time for a quick egg and chips with Jonathan Dimbleby and Claire Fox (another guest on the program) then off to the school for the live show. Tony McNulty and Jeremy Hunt are the other two panellists.

The questions were what I expected – 42 days detention, the sudden glut of political memoirs, 10p tax etc – but there did seem to be at least three questions that led back to – yes – you’ve guessed – Gordon Brown and his miseries. I was surprised they didn’t ask about schools testing – but I guess Gordon took precedence.

Jonathan called me Liz (again – he did it last time too) and I corrected him on air – and he said to make amends I could call him David (his brother’s name) which I did! I like Jonathan and I like Any Questions. AQ gives you far more time to answer and discuss an issue than Question Time – but they are actually quite different animals. Afterwards we have drinks and bits with the local people and the staff and students of the school the program comes from. And then finally – back to London.

Any Questions?

Off to Leek in Staffordshire for Any Questions? yesterday. What a week to be on!

You have no notice of questions for these programs – but it ain’t that hard to guess. I guessed right on Labour donors, Teddygate, Brown’s decline, Oxford Union debate – but didn’t see the question on the Diana trial.

Matthew Parris is always good value – witty and brief. Geoff Hoon (in unenviable position) defended the Labour government and Brown competently. In fact he turned the tables on Conservative MP Caroline Spelman very neatly by batting back the donor issue to asking her to defend the Midlands Industrial Council – it takes money from donors and then gives it to the Conservative Party – but by acting as a middleman, it means the donors are less open to public scrutiny than if they gave money direct to the Tories – sound familiar ?! Virtually pot and kettle.

And before any indulges in the usual nonesense about the Lib Dem donor Michael Brown – we are in the clear in terms of the Electoral Commission finding that we did all the necessary the checks correctly. And there’s never been any suggestion of him getting any favours in return for having donated to us.

Anyway – good fun discussion all round and got home at 1am!

Any Questions (UPDATED)

Lynne Featherstone MP and other guests for Any Questions with pupils from Langtree SchoolLast stop of the day is Radio 4’s Any Questions in Woodcote. (If you missed the show you can listen again for a week on the BBC website). They get you down there about 6pm to have dinner with the other guests, Jonathan Dimbleby and the producer. It is always very pleasant – but being before the show also slightly tense. My co-panellists are Tim Yeo (Tory), Chair of the Environment Select Committee, John Cruddas (Labour) and would be deputy leader candidate and George Pasco Watson of the Sun.

We all troop off to the Langtree School (who are great hosts) and into the hall. It was a lively audience and actually great fun. Obviously if you are on you scan the news all week to make sure you have some idea of what might come up. I predicted correctly on releasing paedophiles through lack of prison spaces; gay adoptions and the Catholic Church; British Summertime. But I didn’t plan on the BA threatened strike or size double zero models and London Fashion Week. But it was fine – and being relatively near I was home by 11pm.

UPDATE: Iain Dale’s take on my appearance is here.

Any Questions

Surgery ’til lunchtime and then – after a bit of paperwork – off to Norwich for Any Questions. I catch the 4pm train from Liverpool Street with newspapers, briefings and blank paper and pens and spend the journey trying to work out what the questions might be.

When I get up to get off, I discover my co-panellist, Shami Chakrabarti from Liberty, is in the seat just in front. A car is there to meet us and take us to the restaurant – where Jonathan Dimbleby and John Bercow (Tory) are already seated for dinner. He now bears the ‘moderate’ tag in the Tory party and is a keen Ken Clarke supporter. David Miliband (Labour, minister) is not yet there. About three quarters of an hour into the dinner – Miliband arrives with assistant in tow. We are all strictly told not to bring assistants to the dinner – but Ministers and power and status you know. The atmosphere changes immediately. There is something quite chilling about Labour automatons – natural conversation diminishes and careful phrasing and tones take over. Strangely enough, in the anteroom when we arrive at the venue for the show, the coldness disappears just briefly and the human being can be glimpsed – completely charming.

Anyway – there is a warm up question on Pinter (not broadcast, but done to get us all into the swing of things) and then we are on. First up is the judgement on the Zimbabwe asylum seeker. Although he lied in his application, the courts have found the Government wanting and in neglect of their duty as they returned people to places without worrying enough about the human rights situation in the place they’re returning them to. Shami, John and I all welcome the decision – and Milliband mutters about a rethink. Jonathan Dimbleby asks me if I am encouraged by the Minister’s concession to ‘rethink’ and I say I am always encouraged when the Government says it will rethink. Of course – later I thought of a much better retort, as one does.
Drugs and Cameron! My take was that David Cameron should have just admitted whatever he had done at college and left it there. The BBC license fee (not surprisingly) was on the menu and we all paid tribute to the hand that fed us and then went onto the real heart of the matter on civil liberties. I am not going to bang on through the whole program (because you can listen to it on the BBC’s website for the next week – and because readers of this blog will know my views well by now!).

The show always finishes with a quirky question. On the train up and looking at the papers I thought it might be who would the panel choose to play the new James Bond. I carefully hone by answer (settling on Jonathan Ross in the end) but sadly – this isn’t the question that comes up!

Muslims and extremism

Surgery all morning and then home to find office moving out – finally! After eight years of having a Lib Dem office in my home, including the general Lib Dem phone and email address, things are now moving to my new office. For the time being, it is above the Three Compasses Pub in Hornsey – which was our HQ during the election. We will be hopefully moving across the road to a proper office within a few months after that. Hurray!

I am nervous about the changeover. It’s necessary to have staff dealing with much more to cope with the workload, but I have had such a very personal relationship with everyone and want to maintain that as far as possible.

And I get my front room back!

At 3pm I start my journey to Melcham where I am appearing on ‘Any Questions’. Three tube lines to get to Paddington – noticeably empty and we are all staring at each other to check that none of us is a terrorist. At Paddington I get on the train and study the papers – as you have no idea what will come up on the programme. It is my first appearance on this one – although even more terrifying was the appearance on Question Time the first Thursday after the election – and I lived.

Arriving at the station, I am whipped off in a car to a country hotel/restaurant/pub where the panellists and Jonathan Dimbleby have dinner. My tummy is not really up to a big meal before the event – and I can’t decide whether it would be good to have a couple of glasses of wine or bad to have a couple of glasses of wine. I decide in favour of the wine. Pleasant, if somewhat fake, repartee during meal. My co-panellists are Peter Hitchins (Mail on Sunday columnist), Lord Strathclyde (Tory Peer), Shahid Malik (new Labour MP from Dewsbury in the heart of the area where three of the 7/7 bombers come from) and me.

I think Shahid has being a real star during this period. He has said difficult things in a tinderbox situation – and deserves to be supported in what he is doing. In fact during the show Shahid said – in response to a comment about the police starting to do stop and search on the tube – that those who ‘look’ Muslim will be disproportionately stopped and that the Muslim community shouldn’t hate the police for it but should turn that hatred on those who had perpetrated the crime and brought this upon the Muslim community. Absolutely spot on – and tough stuff. Hats off!

I had been briefly watching Sky News at lunchtime and the police had just shot a suspect point black in front of tube passengers at Stockwell. Shocking stiff – and desperately hoping that the person was a terrorist rather than an innocent. Sadly as we now know – he wasn’t. That’s for another discussion. But Sky was running a poll which showed that around 48% of Muslims questioned believed that Imams or Mullahs who preached extremism and violence were not out of line with mainstream Muslim views.

I was shocked – because my own Muslim friends bear no relationship to the extremists and I spend huge amounts of time saying things like ‘the vast majority of Muslims condemn the bombings and condemn extremist views’. So this poll really chilled me and I chose on the program to push at what I consider an area that needs a bit of spotlight.

I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman. I don’t know the Muslim community intimately. I am exposed to views of Muslims by the media. I don’t like the idea of people hating me because they regard me as an infidel. I can live with hate – this is a democracy. But when that hatred turns into indiscriminate killing – and that killing is supported by extremist leaders – that’s something else. But it then becomes very easy to fear the whole community.

That is one of the dangers of segregation of communities. And the Muslim community is more segregated than most others. Segregation breeds ignorance of each other. Ignorance of others breeds fear of the unknown. And this is the feeding ground for extremists and a fertile territory for suspicion to grow.

Nothing, in my view, excuses terrorism or suicide bombers. The democratic process is paramount. I don’t care how many people of any culture have different views – they are welcome to argue the case and get elected. But never should a minority – even if they are the majority within one group – believe for one second that they have any right to kill to make their point or their case.

Sorry, getting very heavy – lightening up we moved onto the Tory leadership – always good for a laugh. We now have a long and protracted process ending in a beauty parade at the Tory Conference in the autumn.

I think the important point is the what – not the who. And judging from Cheadle by-election where we Lib Dems comfortably held the seat (a massively safe Tory seat the last time they won a general election) despite the Tories throwing everything at it that they could – not a whisper of a recovery. Blair appears to have left them nowhere to go – and if they go to the right – to their core vote – there aren’t enough votes there. They just don’t wash as liberal in any sense – and so hard to see them as anything but on a continuing downward slope.

The show passes very quickly – and then it is home by car to London.