Being an MP: the verdict

Photo of Parliament
So – my first year (and a bit) as MP for Hornsey & Wood Green has come to an end. My conclusions thus far are that there aren’t enough hours in the day, days in the week or weeks in the year – and cloning humans would be helpful!

It also has to be one of the best jobs in the world. It is the sheer scope of what has to be dealt with over any week that keeps the interest at boiling point. Being thrown in the deep end in terms of front bench Home Affairs spokesperson for Police, Crime and Disorder (and a list of other responsibilities) was a baptism of fire – but the only way to learn. Over the year I have written a diary of many of the things that I have done or thought on the day – but with the summer break just thought I would like to try and summarise and collect some of my activities, thoughts and impressions over this first year.

At the constituency end, a lot of the work is about taking up individual casework, trying to help and campaigning with local people to improve things – which is pretty much what I have been doing since before I was first elected to Haringey Council. (And it is interesting to see how the political culture in Haringey has changed since then. When my colleagues and I first seriously got stuck into local campaigning, the other parties were very snooty about delivering leaflets, issuing press releases, doing loads of individual casework, having a freepost address, and on and on. Of course, over the years as they lost elections and we won them they have bit by bit copied all the things they used to so look down on. Though it hasn’t helped them much!).

So the constituency end of being an MP was somewhat familiar to me – although the intensity and severity of the issues that people bring to surgery in particular has been an eye opener.

At this point I should perhaps explain what “surgery” means – as one person did write to me (in all seriousness) wondering what sort of doctor I was and what I did with all my surgeries. It made me smile … but the serious point of course is that the political class has a whole set of insider vocabulary – and it is very easy to over-estimate how much of the jargon (House, floor of the House, surgery, chamber, PMQs, EDM, etc etc) the rest of the world understands. So – for the uninitiated – my “surgery” is when constituents come and see my and raise any sort of issue they want. I guess the name comes from doctors – as when GPs hold surgeries people turn up with any manner of complaint.

Anyway – my surgery has taught me so much about the real impact of the things we debate in Parliament. I could have told you that the Home Office wasn’t coping within my first month as an MP. The length of time to get an answer – let alone the years to get a decision on asylum and immigration matters. And too many other problems with visas, residency, naturalisation, lost documents – an endless stream of the victims of Home Office failure. Unbelievable. And housing – the issues around housing have given me such a good overview of, not only the shortage, but also the issues around allocation.

In fact, in the chapter I have written to be published in a book in the autumn called Britain after Blair, is based in part on this experience. For what I see is a mish-mash of decisions, with poor reasoning behind them, no transparency and often highly unsatisfactory rules. Thanks to this muddled approach, people can wait decade after decade waiting to be re-housed in a points system where they never reach the top. And then there is the threatening approach to anyone who doesn’t take what is offered, however absolutely dreadful it is. The threat is – take it, no matter how bad it is, or you lose your right to be offered again. Anyway – could go on and on – but you’ll just have to buy the book!

Certainly, my direction is heavily influenced by my experience of my local constituents’ problems – as indeed it should be – but I think most people think of an MP as someone at Parliament and see only that side – or the giving out prizes or the visiting things (the Queen Mum bit of the job). These are all important – but to me it’s still people’s lives that are the challenge. Of course – that challenge can then be expanded to lobby at the Parliamentary level to put the pressure on to change the way things are.

As for Parliament itself – that’s been an experience and a half. I’ve learned how to lead on a Bill and take it through committee – which at committee stage is akin to being a lawyer. I’ve learned how to get called to speak in a debate (be very nice to Mr Speaker and advise him in advance of my wish to speak and special reason why he should call me), put oral questions (including one to David Blunkett and he was gone the next day – be afraid, be very afraid) and literally hundreds of written questions. I haven’t been selected for a Westminster Hall debate (yet) or an oral question to the Prime Minister – but I’m putting in for the ballot and am determined to get lucky in the next session. (If you have any mystic seaweed I can waive to raise my chances in the ballot, just pop it in the post please).

I’ve taken school governors to meet the Ministers’ officials and met with hundreds of different lobbies who have come about one thing or another. I’ve put in written questions and done masses of media. I’ve sponsored local groups who have wanted to come to Parliament to have a room for a debate and talked to lots of local school groups who have come up to the House, had a tour and then get to grill me for half an hour. It’s quite different to the other levels of governance I have been elected to thus far – local council and London Assembly. They were more direct in a way whilst this is a legislature – and the immediacy and directness is less obvious.

I’ve witnessed and taken part in some of the great debates of the day on detention without charge, on ID cards, on religious hatred and so on. I have experience the Commons in sombre mode following 7/7. There is a lot of humour there too – some cruel but some just comradely. The formality and the format are not to my taste – but in the year I have tried to learn how best to use my time there.

Parliament is caught in a time warp in my view. They don’t even use tracking changes for legislation and amendments which I find astonishing. So each time you get a new pile of paperwork – there is no hint as to what has changed since last time. But my time there is not to fight the fight about the traditions or to worry about the so called ‘male’ environment – my time there is to represent my constituents and my conscience and my party.

17 seconds wait for a cab?

Digital Conference on Thursday. I am not sure how I got to be keynote speaker at this breakfast at the RSA – but here I am. The company that invited me – Panlogic – turns out to have come across me through one of their directors living in the constituency, reading my blog and visiting my website. As the research they are launching today is basically about e-marketing and demonstrates that the age group between 50 and 65 (us ex-hippies with conscience, peace and love man) are still desperately caring people who want to engage in issues and change things for the better. I think their research is spot on.

Day of two speeches really. In the evening I go to one of those wonderful old city halls as keynote speaker at the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers’ Dinner. To you and me – a black cab evening. I am hand-clapped in with the ‘Master’ and other honoured guests in time honoured tradition. I get a quick briefing on how I will address the company. Dinner is enjoyable and I am lucky in that the guest to my right, the Master and the Master Clock Maker (a woman on the other side of the Master) are all absolutely delightful company. In fact, Diana, turns out to have been a constituent but has moved away now. She is a wonderful example of the changing face of the city in that she is the first-ever female Master Clock Maker – and that spans about four centuries.

Anyway, I am there to give a speech after dinner. I have crafted it quite carefully as the LTDA (one of the representative groups for drivers) has previously attacked me for saying there are not enough cabs around due to a driver shortage. They counter-claimed saying that you never have to wait longer than 19 seconds to hail a taxi in central London. Tell that to poor Susan Kramer who waited 25 minutes outside Parliament only this last week! It was rubbish – but there is a kind of jobs for the boys section of the trade who do not actually want to reach the targets set by Transport for London. Last year when I annoyed them evidence had gone to the Transport for London Board showing that there was a shortage of 1,200 black cabs and 4,500 private hire cabs. The concern has to be that if there are not legitimate cabs to hand – people will use the touts with all the dangers that entails.

I wafted across the need to crack down on touts, the Olympics and told my David Blunkett joke. And then home. Or so I thought. Having come by Tube, I got on the Tube home. But – hey ho – it’s the Northern Line and the Barnet branch was suspended. So I got off at Camden and after half an hour waiting for my 19-second taxi I got back on the Tube and went to Golders Green. No 210 and no taxi. Dying of cold and now about quarter to one in the morning, I phoned a private hire company and eventually a mini-cab came for me.

Blunkett's demise

As I drove in today listening to the radio, the news started to roll across one of the two big stories of the day – from Blunkett may resign – to – hasn’t turned up to Pensions Select Committee – to – coming out of Downing Street – to had handed in his resignation.

I don’t think there was any way out for him really. I was talking to Menzies Campbell (Lib Dem deputy leader) later in the day who was saying (in jest) that it was my fault for asking the question and that other Ministers should be afraid.

I asked him whether he thought it would have made any difference if Blunkett had chosen, instead of attacking me for daring to ask a question about whether his judgement being so publicly called into question meant he was still able to do his job as a minister, to instead say something like ‘the Honourable Lady is right. I have had so many personal disasters in recent times that I have done things, albeit unwittingly, that have resulted in my making errors of judgement – but I apologise to the House and am putting all in order as the job I have to do is the single most important thing on this nation’s agenda and on mine …’ Menzies said he thought that contrition went a long way in the House. But contrition so isn’t David Blunkett. His position worsened between Monday’s questions and today – and the inevitable conclusion was reached.

It is extraordinary that a man so brilliant in a work situation (whether you love or hate his policies) could be so floored by personal relationships – but that’s just the truth of how life is.

Prime Minister’s Questions followed quickly on – and Tony B decided on a strange defence of his actions vis a vis Blunkett. He said that Blunkett had broken the Ministerial Code – but that he shouldn’t go. He said that it wasn’t a sacking offence. This shouldn’t be anything to do with what Blair or any other Prime Minister thinks is ‘serious’ or not. So I would suggest that the decision is taken out of the Prime Minister’s hands – and that there is an independent panel to decide about such matters. You simply cannot have a Ministerial Code that is broken and have a Prime Minister saying basically – well it doesn’t matter.

On the run and wounded Blair looked weak as he wanly defended himself against accusations of being a lame duck as power and influence and friends in the Cabinet drained away. The colour drained away too from his face. Nasty business today.

And it got worse as we spent the rest of the day debating the Terror Bill where the Government was forced into retreat on its proposals for extending detention for 90 days without charge. Having come within one vote of defeat on an earlier amendment – Charles Clarke (who is no fool) backed down and conceded talks –  thus avoiding a vote against the proposals. We’ll see what happens. Only other thing to report is dashing out into pouring rain to meet with the lobby for Trade Justice. There was a Hornsey & Wood Green delegation and I am so glad I was able to get out and talk to them (the votes and getting out the chamber was not easy).

David Blunkett

First thing Monday discover I have question number 1 on the Order Paper to David Blunkett as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. And yes – today is the day when he is all over the papers for buying shares in a DNA company and being on the Board without asking the advice of the Advisory Committee – a committee set up to help ex-ministers stay out of trouble.
My question is on pensions – which is the real issue – and the real problem with having a Minister seemingly too distracted by other issues. I get one supplementary and have a dilemma – if I don’t mention the current problems it would be bizarre – if I do the House will not like it (apparently it’s not “the done thing”). So I steer a middle course, merely asking if his judgement having been so recently called into question might make it a problem for him to unite a divided cabinet over solving the urgent pension crisis.
He was not best pleased and gave me a right bollocking for daring to ask and for not understanding that it is impolite to use questions to the Minister to ask a question to the Minister (!). He clearly didn’t like the question and raw nerves are, not surprisingly, easily set off.

For all Blunkett’s condescension, he – in answer to another question – happily joked about his virility. So talking about his virility at question time is ok, but asking if he’s able to do his job isn’t!
The more important point is what is going to happen to pensions. Blunkett may well survive this time, but the need for Labour to join the growing consensus around radical pension reform is pressing – and hopefully that is where he will turn his attention.

Late evening on Monday do a live radio show from a radio car outside my home. A Labour MP down a line somewhere else, Edwina Currie and another in the studio – all about Blunkett. Found myself in uncharted water with Edwina Currie congratulating me on my confrontation with the Minister. Politics makes strange bedfellows…

Age Concern reception

Nick (Mr Europe and jolly good at it) Clegg rang last week to say could I step into his shoes and take his place speaking at an Age Concern reception in Parliament.

The reception is held in the Speaker’s House – not so much of house as a castle at the left-hand side of Westminster Palace as you look from the main road. The apartments were grand – understatement! Reception rooms, leading to a state dining room with a table that would seat I guess about 50 or 60 – leading to a bedroom with the whole caboodle of four poster, desks, etc. Of course, Mr Speaker actually lives upstairs – but this is where he entertains.

Drinking champagne (yes – sorry – already being seduced by now being member of best gentleman’s club in town) and chatting, I discover that there will be three MP speakers as well as the Chief Executive of Age Concern and the Speaker himself – the other two being Teresa May and David Blunkett.

I gravitate, as instructed, towards the far end of the mile-long dining table and guests assemble around it. Mr Speaker (Michael Martin) and I have a little chat. I thought what he did when Patsy Carlton, our LibDem MP for Cheadle, came to the Commons to swear in – in a wheelchair and only a few days before she died after a long battle with cancer – was absolutely fantastic.

Patsy was pushed in the wheelchair as far as the Despatch Box where the chamber becomes too narrow for the chair to pass. Mr Speaker came down from his chair, kissed her, and said ‘welcome home Patsy’. I can’t even write this without welling up. It was incredibly moving and entirely the right thing to do. It was against all tradition – and this place is literally the bastion of tradition.

Anyway – after Mr Speaker and Age Concern spoke – I had my turn. They had chosen the three MPs not just from the three parties – but an oldy (David Blunkett), a middly (Teresa May) and myself as a new kid – three generations of MPs.

Meeting David Blunkett

After an entire day on budget – rush off to a drinks reception at New Scotland Yard to celebrate and mark Sir John Stevens’ retirement.

As I wander around Ken spots me and grabs me and says ‘all day and you couldn’t come up with a figure’. You have to hold your nose as you say those words to replicate his nasal tone accurately. We are having a good-humoured battle of words when David Blunkett come up. Ken introduces me and we shake hands. Blunkett comments on how warm my hands are and Ken makes I suppose what was meant to be a funny remark something about being careful about women with warm hands – can’t remember exactly – but I was acutely embarrassed.

Ken mentions my plans to stand for Parliament. Blunkett says that if we take the council and I have a chance to be leader of the council as he was in Sheffield, that would be even better than going to Parliament. Well – Neil Williams is our leader of the Lib Dem council group and in 2006 if we take the council as we intend, he will be a great leader.

Blunkett then says that he cannot wish me luck in the election (for obvious reasons) but wishes me well personally. Then he and his dog move off.

I was so aware of everything that has happened to him in recent months – how could I not be? Many times I wished him to leave office – but never for the reasons he had to in the end. I believe we are edging towards an illiberal and authoritarian state – much of it driven by him – but in his personal life I am sympathetic.

David Blunkett

It’s a bummer when you have to go to a black tie do straight from work.

Should I wear my ball gown to City Hall all day, go home and change or take it to work and change? Happily, I don’t have a ball gown and have got this down to a fine art. I wear a black (reasonably nice) suit to work with normal t-shirt – and then change the t-shirt for a frilly evening top and in a twinkling – I can go to the ball.

Actually, it’s not a ball, but the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust dinner at the Dorchester, and yes I have declared it (or asked my PA to) in the declarations of hospitality accepted. It was a fantastic evening and I hope it raised lots of money for the trust which is doing incredible work.

They had there the students who are in receipt of bursaries to study architecture and it was incredibly moving to see that out of the appalling murder of Stephen has come some real good.

It was quite a line-up of speakers and guests. Outside of the trustees, there was a bevy of cabinet ministers including Blunkett and even Cherie Blair put in an appearance. Of course, everyone was staring at Blunkett.

I can’t imagine what it is like to have to go to such a high profile do in the middle of all the furore going on about his love life and visa doings. To his credit, as he went up to speak, his first line was ‘I am seeking popularity…’ It raised a laugh – but his problems won’t go away.

Paul Boateng gave one of the weirdest speeches I have ever heard. I don’t know if that is his usual style of delivery but I have never heard such a bizarre delivery. Jack Straw was Jack Straw. The real star was Doreen Lawrence. She is just a fantastic woman.

The invite said ‘carriages at 2.00 am’. Well – I don’t have a carriage and 2 is way past my bedtime – so I left at midnight. Telling my children about the evening later when I got home – I mentioned that the Fame Academy star Lemar was there. Forget Blunkett and Cherie – I was in the doghouse for not getting his autograph.