Having traction on foreign affairs

Managed to get to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Cyprus chaired by Peter Droussiotis – my former colleague (albeit Labour) on Haringey Council. MPs turned up to say their few words to the assembled audience – and it is great to have the opportunity to show those who care so passionately about Cyprus and its prospects for prosperity and re-unification that as an MP with lots of Greek and Turkish Cypriots that it matters.

What I tried to put across in my few words is the frustration when the motions which are part of the democratic process (lobbying your MP, raising matters in the House, writing to Ministers, attending events etc) don’t seem to lead anywhere. For me the question then is what is it that I can do to find the right angle, the right moment to make change and progress more likely?

It is the frustration I often feel about foreign affairs – about situations like the Middle East or Cyprus or Afghanistan – where the democratic process is all we have – but it sometimes just doesn’t seem to have the traction to make those with the power to effect change.

The thing that gives me the most pleasure as an MP

Am really cross that despite best efforts cannot find time to meet up with Jenny Gillies. She’s the South African women that I met when I went to look at AIDS projects in South Africa. Jenny left a message on my phone – and as good as her word – the roof of the terrible shack I visited has an interim replacement which will keep the rain off of him during the rainy season and will be replaced with a proper roof thereafter – and going that extra mile – the walls are to be built of brick! Thanks Jenny – and see you next time!

Lunch yesterday was with the High Commissioner of Cyprus to the UK – Georgios Icovou. Well – what an interesting man (was Foreign Minister in Cyprus for 15 years). I learned so much of the history (obviously from his perspective).

It seems to me that there were many lost opportunities along the road to where we are unhappily now. I have both Greek and Turkish communities in Hornsey & Wood Green – and it seems to me that our Government does not take a really pro-active role in trying to move the impasse. In the end – it is the people (both communities) who suffer and whilst there are certainly barriers to achieving the breakthrough – there must be a way through.

In the evening was the long-awaited ‘workshop’ by the London Development Agency at the Chocolate Factory. The open session was to show the current tenants and other creative businesses in Haringey what is intended for the future for the creative industries, what the development plans for Haringey Heartlands are, what support there is available to creative businesses and so on. I think the audience appreciate the workshop and found some of the plans very exciting.

Not going to raise all the issues here as it was a closed session. However, the crux of the issue for the current tenants was the closed session where they got to question the LDA on their investment and monitoring. It was clear however, that the LDA is not going to get involved in the key issue – which is the 50% hike in rents by Collage Arts for their studio licenses – as that is a legal and contractual matter between individuals and Collage.

All I would say though, is we all hope that Collage and the tenants can find a better way forward where the tenants are not fearful the whole time and where they feel that the future envisaged by the LDA includes them rather than gets rid of them in favour of new businesses. The existing colony of artists – the artistic jewel in Haringey’s Crown – could be in jeopardy if they cannot afford the 50% hike in rent. It will be a crying shame if any of the artists have to go.

Of course – the area will be worth a fortune when Heartlands kicks off!

Last stop of the day – speech night at St Thomas More School. This is a Catholic secondary school in Wood Green and this was its first ever speech night and prize giving. I was absolutely thrilled to be there to give out the prizes and make the keynote speech.

There is nothing, quite frankly, in my role as MP that gives me more pleasure and satisfaction than seeing young people get rewarded for effort. The Head, Mr Hickey, is clearly completely committed – as are the staff. And that spirit of enthusiasm is echoed as each ‘winner’ came up shyly or boldly to receive their award – proud of themselves.

St Thomas’s has not always had the reputation of saints – but it seems to me as if there is a real ethos of achievement being instilled throughout everyone at the school – students, parents and teachers – and it’s not just academic, but it’s about creating thinking, respectful individuals who try their best. Way to go!

Post Offices, David Hockney and Cyprus

Lib Dem Opposition Day – which means we get to put a motion to the House in the main chamber – which means in normal speak that the Liberal Democrats get to choose the topic for debate in the House of Commons today. And as the Government won’t give the Post Office debating time – we pick the Post Office, whose network which has been decimated over recent years – denuding both rural and urban areas of a central function and social fulcrum. Thousands of sub-post offices have given up the ghost as Government has removed function after function from their stock of services.

What the Government seems completely deaf to are the consequences for villages and little local shopping parades and for the vulnerable who can just about get to a post office. Stony ground during the debate. The Government is not interested in good arguments, logic or reason – only in steam-rollering through ‘modernisation’. But genuine modernisation would be to use Post Offices to provide more services locally – not less. The Tories voted with us – but the Government can always out vote us and they did. Moral victory is not satisfying enough!

After that, I went to the opening of the new David Hockney exhibition at the National Portrait gallery – and met David Hockney. For me – a real highlight. Having been a designer and illustrator for 20 years before politics, and having grown up through the years of Hockney’s Bigger Splash and Warhol, looking at the pictures sparked many memories of my youth. Standing in front of one of the swimming pool / naked young man paintings of the Bigger Splash era, one such memory came bounding back across the intervening decades – auditioning for Andy Warhol’s play ‘Pork’ when I was about 18. They phoned to offer me the part of the understudy – but it was just before the summer hols and I was going to Greece with my friends – so I turned it down! The rest, as they say, is history. And then moving along – sure enough – there was a portrait of Warhol.

Earlier in the day I had met with two women representatives of Embargo – a lobby group who are trying to get Turkish Cypriot isolation ended – Suzanne Nuri and Fusun Nadiri. Recently the intransigent impasse between Turkish and Greek Cypriots seems to me to have become more, rather than less, entrenched. But as always on these issues of great divides of historic rights and wrongs what strikes me is the dreadful situations ordinary people have to live with for decades whilst their governments and leaders refuse to move ahead.

I don’t see the point of keeping people in dreadful situations. It’s as if somehow if the situation is eased the people will feel less like keeping to old demands and will move on with their lives thus leaders lose their rallying causes. But I don’t think ordinary people should have to suffer in this way.

Having come out of the statement in Parliament on Northern Ireland for this meeting – the (near) miracle of Northern Ireland has to be a message of hope and possibility for all of these dreadful world divides. For whether Catholic and Protestant, Palestinian and Israeli or Greek or Turkish Cypriot – it is clear where great men and women put aside the hatreds of centuries for the benefit of all futures – there is no enmity so great that peace cannot be found. That is the message of hope from Northern Ireland. And if Tony really wants an outstanding legacy – one that would erase the bitter taste of Iraq – then let him go use his skills and energies in the Middle East – that would be truly remarkable.

Cyprus Day

It’s hot, hot, hot! And I go off to St Barnabas Church off Trinity Road for a service for Cyprus Day. Inside this old church it is sweltering – like a sauna. Other dignitaries and myself are on a raised platform by the dais. It is the day of Pentecost and also St Barnabas day AND Cyprus Day – so the service will be very long. His Eminence Gregorios, Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain leads the celebrations and His Excellency the High Commissioner of Cyprus in Great Britain, Mr Petros Eftychiou was also there to deliver the speech of the day.

The whole congregation was fanning itself with the program. I don’t know how the clergy carrying out the service managed to survive in the heavy brocade robes – which were gloriously rich – but hugely thick. As the service went on the incense was pungent and the tones of incantation in foreign tongue mesmerising. I really enjoy religious services. They are always fascinating – and have so much in common with each other, including the collection for building repair. That really is universal! Mind you, Eric Monk, the local beat officer was next to me – and his uniform was no lightweight affair either. Really nice to see how well known he is amongst the community – full credit!

The High Commissioner of Cyprus in GB gave a speech – but it was not in English so I don’t know what the subject was – I can only speculate that it was about Cyprus and how to bring the island to prosperity for all. After about two hours the service ended and following photos with the Archbishop I departed homeward.

Terror Bill

On Thursday I was absolutely determined to get called in the Third Reading Debate on the Terror Bill as I wanted very much to get what my consultation with local Muslims had delivered onto the record.

The Chamber was relatively and eerily empty by comparison with the high drama of Wednesday’s votes – and so I got my chance after about the first four hours of bobbing up and down at the end of every speech.

I made two basic points: the first was to relate back the results of the consultation. The Prime Minister at PMQs (Prime Minster’s Question Time) had asserted that Muslims did not want to be associated with being against this Bill – and the inference was that everything with them was therefore hunky-dory. Well – it clearly wasn’t so simple and I read out the Secretary of the Mosque’s email to me as it makes moving reading.

There was no division at the end of the debate. Basically – the Government’s defeat yesterday means that the outstanding issues over ‘glorification’ and the definition of ‘terrorism’ will have to be sorted in the Lords. Now the aftermath of the Government defeat is the running news story. From what I can make out listening to John Reid – it was Parliament that got it wrong; Tony Blair is right. That statement appalled me. The democratic duty of Parliament and the will of Parliament were clear.

In the evening I had invited, with the help of Merel Ece, key members of the Turkish, Turkish Kurdish and Turkish Cypriot communities in to discuss informally with me the key issues for their communities. Overwhelmingly – it is education. Of course there is concern about Cyprus, minority rights in Turkey and autonomy of some sort for the Kurds – but it is here in this country that the main thrust of their problems lie. The attainment record in our schools is extraordinarily low – and relatively little seems to be being done, although some good projects are happening (at least one here in Haringey) but there is no coordination of best practise. There is clearly also a problem with the Home Office in terms of visas for students. The other issue that stood out was the lack of recognition for the Alevi – a faith and a culture but not a race.

So now I feel I have put faces to names and issues and it was a really interesting couple of hours. Simon Hughes MP also popped in to give a little troll through Liberal Democracy and our position on the international issues – which was really appreciated.

How not to make legislation

Went to the gardens next door to Parliament to be photographed with a sheep (not real) for an RSPCA promotion of their ‘mark’ which will would signify food that has their approval ofr how the animals are treated. Realised after photographer had finished that I had stood at sheep’s rear end!

During questions today in Parliament I was desperate to get in on a question (somebody else’s) on British Transport Police. I wanted to ask the Minister what action he had taken since the controversy in summer over the use of stop and search powers on the rail network and the hugely disproportionate number of ethnic minority members being stopped.

Then statement in the House on Turkey’s accession to the EU. I was particularly interested in this as there’s a substantial Turkish community in Haringey and the issue of Cyprus very important to both the Turkish and Greek community here. From the statement, it became clear that there will be around 10 – 15 years while Turkey now tries to bring a whole raft of things in line with EU policy. There is no question that the Cyprus issue would have to be resolved and that its record on human rights would have to be vastly improved. It was equally clear that this must be the way forward – as Turkey’s desire to join the Union is the strongest motivator for improvement and resolution.

The bit of the debate I was less keen on was the constant reference by Straw to the EU being seen as a Christian club if a Muslim country such as Turkey (albeit pretty secular) was not admitted. I would have much preferred the debate to remain on the secular side as the EU should have no truck with using religion as a deciding factor on how to treat people or countries.

Later, Mr Speaker (Michael Martin) had invited new MPs to the Speaker’s House for a drink. Magnificent apartments! I talked to his chief of office for a while – and now understand better how I need to jump up and down to be called during question sessions. But it means jumping up and down all the time – even if it’s not really the question you want to be called on – so you end up risking getting called to speak on something you don’t want to talk about or staying sitting most of the time and not getting called at all.

It’s one of the macho things about the house I already can’t stand. Another is that the longer you talk, regardless of value of content of what you say, the better man you are. I had noticed in debates where speeches are limited to ten minutes that MPs nearly all talk for the entire ten minutes regardless – but not me! No doubt I am wrong to only say what I need to say; but call me old-fashioned – burbling endlessly is not a skill I intend to acquire.

Another bugbear is the way that legislation is brought forward and amended. You would not believe how archaic this is or that the age of technology had arrived.

Take the In Violent Crime Reduction Bill which is starting its committee stage starting on Thursday, You have the Bill, the Lib Dem amendments, the Tory amendments, the Government amendments, explanatory notes, selection order papers and so on – all which have to be to hand on each amendment. It would be SO SIMPLE to have an electronic version of the Bill with all the different amendments and information marked up on it in different colours. But no – another macho game is to make it much more complicated than it needs to be. Of course it does result – as we see all the time – in badly written legislation.

I whipped in to see the Labour whip on the committee to ask him about the programming motion (a 15 minute meeting on Wednesday to decide what and how long each bit should take). And he agrees with me about the presentation of bills and amendments – so cross party – perhaps … in the next century …

How much am I offered for this ironing?

Canvassing in Crouch End. On the doorsteps – lack of school places is the issue. Canvassing on a beautiful sunny day – and everything in the garden is lovely.

In the evening it’s a local Lib Dem fundraiser – an ‘Auction of Promises’. Our new fundraising committee (made up of new young faces) has done this all themselves. They are looking nervous and wondering if the people will come. Their nerves are misplaced as we get an excellent turnout.

The promises on offer range from doing two hours ironing all the way up to use of a villa with private pool in Cyprus.

Ed and Monica have organised the whole evening and are genial auctioneers, Thoraya has done the phoning round to get people to come and to give and Laura is on drinks.

And Ed and Monica are complete stars. They have done so much preparation and make the introduction of each bid hilarious. They give a warm, funny and happy atmosphere to the evening. People bid high and against each other – and the ironing lot proves so popular amongst generally our single males who are apparently desperate for this lot – that the giver offers it twice more and we make the lot three times.

The evening is a stomping success with lots of money raised and a fabulous social evening – particularly notable for the quantity of young people who came.