Congratulations to The Westminster Hour

Appearing on Radio 4's The Westminster Hour with Carolyn QuinnBumped into Carolyn Quinn of Westminster Hour fame – and she told me the brilliant news. At a ceremony in London held by the Political Studies Association, The Westminster Hour won an award for being Political Programme of the Year. The Political Studies Association is the professional body for the nation’s political scientists.

I congratulated her effusively – and she kindly pointed out that I was part of the program. I guess – in a ten minute panel way – that’s true. Anyway – I am jolly pleased for them!

PS And I’m on the show again this Sunday: from 10pm, Radio 4. Or if you miss the show you can listen again on their website.

Ed Vaizey's dress sense

Just got back from the Westminster Hour. Ed Vaizey (Conservative MP), now clearly desperate to put me off my stride on our weekly Sunday tryst, has taken to wearing strange outfits. Tonight’s little number was a bright yellow phosphorescent jacket and shorts. That boy will try anything! So if I seemed distracted … perhaps next time I should bring a camera!

First up was the Opposition Day motion on an Iraq enquiry coming up this week in Parliament. The Scot Nats had a debate asking for an enquiry not that long ago – and whilst we Lib Dems voted for an inquiry – the Government (just) won the vote.

This time however, the interesting issue for me is the timing. With Gordon about to ascend the throne – if I was he and trying to put a bit of distance between myself and TB – I might very well in my first hundred days announce an Iraq inquiry. So let’s spoil it for Gordy and vote for one before he gets the chance to spin his involvement in taking us to war.

In fact, listening to a package before I went on tonight, several of the would be deputy leaders of the Labour party were – at one of their hustings in Oxford that the Westminster Hour’s Carolyn Quinn had been to – wringing their hands in grief over how misled they had been over the war (even though most were in the cabinet) and how wrong the intelligence must have been. Spare me the tears. We, the Lib Dems, were the only party asking the hard questions and we were reviled in the House for our stance. Those Labour MPs can’t get away with saying “we were misled”. The truth is – they not only failed to answer the right questions, they reviled those who did ask questions.

And those Tories are being very cheeky (if not somewhat opportunistic) having a debate for an Iraq inquiry as they were very much cheerleaders for the war (though boy David has flipped and flopped back and forth on the issue – saying he was for it, then saying he agreed with the Lib Dems, then changing his mind again, and now – I presume! – will be voting for an inquiry).

Anyway – we also had a chat about my colleague Tom Brake’s 10 minute rule bill on Freedom of Information – coming up on Tuesday. It really extends the original powers to request material under the Freedom of Information Act so that when the Government tries shenanigans to avoid giving up information the ultimate decision will be in the hands of the Information Tribunal or Commissioner – and not in the hands of ministers.

Interestingly, the Bill would also bring private contractors who work for public bodies into the realm of FoI. Quite right! Now virtually everything is outsourced – the companies to whom previously public sector contracts are now awarded should be subject to proper scrutiny and come under the FoI banner.

Will the pensions crisis cost Gordon Brown his next job?

Westminster Hour and Mark d’Arcy was holding the fort for Carolyn Quinn. Ed Vaizey was my co-panellist. Gordon Brown and the pension scandal, Iran and various green bits were the key issues of debate.

The sky is darkening over Gordon Brown – and it’s a race as to whether he gets to the Prime Minister finishing line before being engulfed by bad opinion polls and damaging issues – such as this pension scandal. And Labour are doing themselves no favours with the usual New Labour spin: in this case deliberately timing the release of pension papers under a Freedom of Information request from The Times (well done The Times) on the Friday night of the parliamentary recess. Sneaky, disgusting, planned – and it won’t help him.

We will return to Parliament and Gordon Brown will have to face the music – which is not something often seen as most Treasury Question time he puts his minions out front and sits with head below parapet.

The damage to individual pensioners, the pensions industry as a whole and the damage to trust in politicians (if it can go any lower) is immense. But ultimately it may be damage to Gordon that is irreversible. We will see how things panned out. But he cannot say he wasn’t warned. The point is – he needed the money and clearly he didn’t really care about the consequences. That is sooooooo New Labour – live today and let someone else pay tomorrow!

Will Downing Street let a cooker in?

On The Westminster Hour yesterday, Carolyn Quinn wanted to know what it is like being a woman in the House of Commons etc. This on the back of International Women’s Day coming up on Thursday and a debate on gender in the House of Commons.

Well – it’s still a boys school and we need more women. As to the atmosphere – water of a duck’s back in terms of the male testosterone being sprayed about. Having had my political baptism in the Haringey Council Chamber – three Lib Dems with me as Leader of the Opposition and fifty-four Labour members (then – it’s rather different now!) – the Commons seems quite sweet. However, there is a lot of pointing and jeering – by any other name at school this would be called bullying. And we are meant to have bullying policies at every school – so why not the House of Commons?

However, was grateful for opportunity to flag up the difficulty I am having with Downing Street. I want to deliver a solar cooker (looks like an oversized mixing bowl, covered with reflective silver foil) to Tony Blair. The point I am making is that these solar cookers cost around $2 and save women getting raped and murdered. This is because in many war zones when women go outside of the refugee camps to collect wood to make a fire to cook – they literally risk rape and murder. These cookers, which work of the hot sun, prevent them from needing to leave the safe compound.

So I am trying to deliver one to Tony, wrapped in purple and green ribbon for International Women’s day – but whilst I have permission to deliver a petition they will not let the cooker pass. I did threaten on radio to chain myself to the gates outside Downing Street (ever since the suffragettes I have been longing to chain myself to something for a cause) but that part was in jest!

But if the Downing Street media machine reads blogs – come on guys, let the cooker in: it’s not too much to ask.

The Westminster Hour

It is so weird to go out at 9.30pm on a Sunday night to do a live panel discussion. That’s the time of the week when I am normally just relaxing before the onslaught of the week ahead, making sure everything is done and ready.

But last night (Sunday) was the first of the new era of The Westminster Hour with its new presenter Carolyn Quinn. One of the innovations is a live slot with a panel of MPs – myself, Kitty Usher (Labour) and Ed Vaizey (Tory). Some weeks will be the three of us together but more often it will be two of the three in any combination for a chat about what’s coming up in the week ahead, any particular issues of interest to us individually – and as Ed and I are consummate bloggers – what the blogs are saying.

So off I went to Millbank for a 10.15 start. Kitty had been all over the papers as one of those on the Government payroll who was campaigning against closure of health facilities locally while being one of those voting for the cuts on the government whip in the House of Commons. I thought she had a pretty good stab at defending herself.

To my mind, the big problem isn’t whether Labour MPs are being consistent or not, but that MPs from all parties are raising concerns – and Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt isn’t listening. In Hornsey & Wood Green (as I said on air) the local council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee wrote, as did I, to Patricia – and the reply they got was from the equivalent of the Customer Service department in BT or the Royal Mail. Thank you for your letter – but… Being fobbed off with such a junior reply is hardly the Health Secretary listening.

What makes the fob off more galling is that Patricia Hewitt told Parliament that the correct procedure is indeed for council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committees to write to her and she will use her discretion to intervene and takes this most seriously. Not what happened in Haringey’s case!

Then we had a bash at the Home Office – well it’s an open door on a day when the Government is on the run from yet more scandalous incompetence. If the Government stopped trying to make a new law every day (3,000 new offences since 1997), then their staff might have a chance to get on top of their jobs. But the Government just loves headlines that say: we are going to be active – we are doing things. Just as when John Reid said he would work f***ing 18 hours a day to get it sorted – it makes for good headlines, but the results are rather different!