David Laws

I thought David Laws’ resignation was dignified and full of integrity – as is he – but very sad to watch.

This matter is now for the authorities to investigate – and will take its course. David’s brilliance is a serious loss to our government and our country – particularly at this time of great need.

But outside of the proprieties or otherwise of David’s arrangements for housing and financing thereof – what I saw when I watched his resignation statement – was the personal pain of an individual who has not felt able to be open about their sexuality.

However progressive our laws are – we have not yet reached the point where young people feel completely free about coming out. Iain Dale has a very good piece in the Mail on Sunday about his own experiences and the difficulties of coming out to his family and friends – and coming from a small village. Yes things are changing – but these personal matters are still not easy for the variety of reasons that Iain sites.

We also know that homophobic bullying in our schools is still a major problem. 98% of schools have anti-bullying policies but only 6% have specific policies to tackle homophobic bullying. Six out of ten children experience homophobic bullying.

During anti-bullying week at the end of ’09, Nick Clegg said:

‘It’s a sad fact that looking or acting ‘gay’ can instantly make someone a target in thousands of schools across the country’.

‘Until we deal with homophobia in schools, we’re never going to stamp out wider discrimination in society’.

Both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives highlighted this issue in their manifestos. In the coalition agreement it appears thus: ‘We will help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying’.

David Laws’ untimely and sad departure from the cabinet demonstrates how very far we still have to go and how very right the coalition is to pursue this issue – for all our sakes.

Reading the Baby P Serious Case Review

Well, I read the full Serious Case Review into the death of Baby P at the end of the week. I was given sight of this document following the ho ha when Ed Balls appeared to use the Information Commissioner for cover, saying others could not be allowed sight of the review – and then the Information Commissioner went public clearly not happy with being used in this way. Net result – several MPs, myself included, were allowed to see the report.

Access was given on ‘privy council terms’ – political speak for promising to keep the contents confidential, so I can say nothing of what I have read. The reading was done on my own, in an empty room with one table and one one chair and one copy of said document marked ‘confidential’. I sat alone there for two hours. You are not allowed to make notes of its contents – but you are allowed to note your impressions.

What I can say is that having read the document I am even more of the opinion that it would be in the public interest for it to be published – obviously with some parts anonymized and with a tiny – very tiny – bit of editing of any personal information around the family.

Otherwise – how will all those who have an interest or experience or knowledge or expertise be able to judge Ed Balls action when the investigative report comes in on Monday? That report he has said he will publish – but surely the wider audience can only benefit from understanding how resonant the original document is and was.

To this end – I, David Laws (Liberal Democrat Shadow to Ed Balls) and Michael Gove (Conservative Shadow) wrote to Ed Balls at the end of last week asking him to publish the full Serious Case Review. He has since written back to say no.

Mr Balls’s key rationale for his refusal is that a Serious Case Review is for lessons to be learned. He says that if such documents were to be published – then those who contribute to them might feel nervous about doing so in the future and not talk or give their information freely. Utter bunkum!

Far from being a danger, the light of public scrutiny should be an essential safeguard to ensure that these reviews are carried out properly. Because – quite frankly – these reviews are barely ‘independent’ as they are commissioned by the Safeguarding Children board – in this case chaired by Sharon Shoesmith, one of the very people whose own actions are up for questioning. The ‘independent’ person commissioned on this one has already gone public on the fact that he wasn’t given any independent access to people or documents and that the report went to the sub-committee (chaired by Ms Shoesmith) something like five times for ‘correction’.

So public scrutiny should be welcomed, not feared. As we know already that public scrutiny doesn’t put people off saying what happened and their role in it. They did for Laming’s public inquiry and they did in court and as their jobs depend on it. So you should say goodbye to that old myth, ‘we can only find out the truth if we keep it secret’ Mr Balls.

I rate that old chestnut along with the ‘shhhhhhh don’t say anything brigade’ who keep wailing that this will put off decent social workers coming to Haringey. Nooooo – what will put decent, good, hard-working social workers off coming to Haringey is the constant poor management, cover ups, closing of ranks and appalling leadership – or lack of.

So – publish – and be damned. Whoops – that must be what they are afraid of!

We need a fresh start in Haringey

Ed Balls made a statement to the House of Commons on Thursday about the Baby P case and the actions he was taking. Mr Balls was able to say to most questions essentially – I will wait until I get the report from the urgent investigation I have commissioned and then I will decide and act.

Understandable – except none of us have had access to the Serious Case Review full document. In response to requests by myself, David Laws (Lib Dem spokesperson on Children and Schools) and Michael Gove (Conservative spokesperson) Ed Balls has said that the Information Commissioner has ruled that such a document cannot be published – though as Iain Dale reports, that doesn’t seem to be the full story.

My tack, when Madam Deputy Speaker called me to ask my question in response to Ed Balls statement, was to call for three things to happen so that Haringey can have a new, fresh start – which is what we desperately need.

Firstly that those accountable must go – and the Children’s Act 2004 names those key accountable posts. It came into being because of Victoria Climbie’s death and Lord Laming’s subsequent report – so we should make sure the lesson learnt then is followed now.

Secondly – that Haringey be put under special measures so that we can be held safe whilst things are being resolved.

And thirdly that there would still be a need for a public inquiry because the two week urgent investigation cannot possibly touch on the wider issues. I give you two examples. Firstly, budgetary pressures. It became clear from the figures about how many children were taken into care in Haringey before and after Baby P’s death that Haringey was reducing the numbers of children being taken into care whilst Baby P was being visited all those times. Directly after (and part of which could be a natural reaction) the figures shot up. Also John Hemming, a Lib Dem MP colleague who specialises in this area, had also found figures on reductions because of budgetary pressures. So Haringey’s decisions around budgets needs scrutiny for starters.

A second example of an area needing wider scrutiny – what part did the fragile state of the health team charged with looking after health needs of children at risk in Haringey play? After all, the paediatrician who failed to diagnose Baby P’s broken back was a locum in that very department. A post deleted, the key post of ‘named doctor’ who has particular responsibility in Child Protection cases. £400,000 of cuts required by the PCT (Primary Care Trust). Doctors leaving because of unhappiness with management. An unbelievably high level of sickness. A high level of bullying found by the last Health Care Commission inspection. All in all – a service that needs looking at. Hopefully some of this will be being pursued anyway by the urgent investigation team – but there are wider issues to go in to.

I did go personally to see the Chair of Haringey PCT with all these concerns. I was told – this is no longer the concern or business of the PCT. They had ‘outsourced’ their health team to Great Ormond Street Hospital. So – in my limited research as to why such an important local service would be outsourced – this is what I have been told thus far. Great Ormond Street want to become a Foundation Trust Hospital. In order to do so it has to demonstrate ‘community outreach’. Great Ormond Street had none and no experience in that area. Hence it negotiated with Haringey to take on that department. Well – if that’s all the case, is that what should have happened?

And as I said to Ed Balls – there is a wealth of information that people are contacting me about that needs to come to the inspection and that’s why we need a public inquiry. And we need a new start with new faces at the top – so that everyone involved in child protection in Haringey is imbued with the necessary zeal and support to make that fresh start and to make our vulnerable children as safe as they can be.

Haringey school funding: two pieces of unwelcome news

As if it isn’t bad enough that our kids in Haringey are getting £736 less per head than kids in neighbouring boroughs for schooling, this week we found out that our schools are in financial crisis – with questioning from Lib Dem councillors bringing to light figures figures showing that 19 Haringey schools will end the year in debt totalling over £1.5m.

To add insult to injury – the Government is about to try and claw back 5% of any school’s surplus (so any that aren’t in debt will be hammered anyway for prudence). David Laws, Lib Dem Schools Spokesperson, was on to this like ton of bricks. And in usual copycat fashion – D Cameron went on it at Prime Minister’s Questions. I think he just goes through our LibDem releases and borrows everything!

The good news is that I think Brown will get cold feet and retract from this claw back – which he bloody well should – as schools will have already earmarked the funding for use.

Back from the Westminster Hour

Back Lynne Featherstone MP on Radio 4from the Westminster Hour! Tonight was – is Ming too old (Lord Owen’s comments in the week)? No – say I – just a grumpy old man (Lord Owen not Ming).

Then it was on to Ming and his profile on Facebook – which already has over 200 friends. I’ve just got one too – follow my leader! – but with only 23 friends (so far!).

Then David Cameron – does he have a right to a private life? Yes!

Then – should the Government take note of the online petition on the Number 10 website signed by around one million people about road charging? Yes – of course. Clearly folk are not happy and whilst the overall intention of the policy might be right – there ought to be a lot of work going on to find out how to mitigate the problems people see with the proposal. Also – it cannot be about revenue raising, only about sorting out our traffic and transport.

And then it was on to the Tories approaching our Lib Dem David Laws to change sides. Go away – he said. But I am not surprised that the Tories are trying to seduce our brightest and our best! They need a bit of talent on their benches – but b****r off – you can’t have ours!

On arriving home find a listener who has taken pity on me having heard my friend count and become my friend. Thank you Anna!

MPs, babysitters and cleaners

Just one of those days yesterday (Wednesday)! As I walk into Portcullis House (one of the office blocks for Parliamentarians and staff) my Head of Office hands me a copy of the Evening Standard.

The article was based on an attack by a local Labour councillor. He had taken a line from a training session I gave for women at our Blackpool Conference. What I had basically said was that as these days councillors get paid an allowance, women could think about using it to hire a cleaner or a babysitter – helping to free up their time so they have enough hours to do the work of a councillor on top of all their other commitments. Lord knows it is hard enough for a woman to get out of the house if she is a single parent, on low or no pay – and we need a much more diverse range of people to get into politics.

Cllr Richard Milner apparently wishes to keep women chained to the kitchen – and rather than supporting efforts to bring more women into politics, he preferred to try and score cheap shots about me advocating becoming a councillor in order to get a ‘free cleaner’. Labour should hand their heads in shame over this one. Clearly they don’t believe in equality of opportunity.

Of course he can choose to spend his councillor allowances on anything he likes. He just doesn’t believe women should have that right too! It’s true I can afford help without which I couldn’t do the job I do – but I am out there fighting so that women who cannot afford any help can also enter public life. We need more councillors and MPs for all walks of life and all ranges of personal circumstances, including more women. I had hoped that sexism was dying out – but apparently it’s alive and well in Labour Haringey!

Anyway – I am on the run – and go straight into our Home Affairs team meeting where we run through all the home affairs legislation pouring through Parliament at the moment. Run to Prime Minister’s Questions – unedifying exchange between Blair and Howard. Oh yes you will – oh no we won’t – sort of thing. As I come out and look at my mobile for messages – loads and loads. The Evening Standard sets the hare running – and then everyone wants to know about cleaning ladies and babysitters I am doing all this sitting in the Members’ lobby outside the chamber – and not a woman in sight amongst the comings and goings. I rest my case!

Then it’s Westminster Hall where hundreds of pensioners have gathered to lobby their MPs on the appalling levels of state pension compared with ever-rising outgoings – like Council Tax – hiked up by many more percent than a fixed income can cope with.

The guy on the desk shouts out through the microphone that I am here for any lobbyists from Hornsey & Wood Green. I am retrieved by a group who have come to make their views known. Of course I agree with almost everything they say and will raise the issues they bring to me with the Minister and with our own Work and Pensions Shadow Secretary – David Laws.

Then it’s the ‘Programming Meeting’ where the MPs from all parties who are taking the Violent Crime Reduction Bill through Parliament meet to decide how long the committee stage will be and how many sessions it will comprise. Both opposition parties make the point that the Government itself has put down loads of amendments to its own Bill and both of us have tabled loads too. So the seven sessions allocated may not be enough. However, we are all co-operating and the Minster agrees to be flexible if we need more time.

There has been no time for lunch today. But it’s off to my sister for dinner and when I get home – I have to pour over the Bill and clauses and amendments and arguments – so that I won’t make a fool of myself in Committee the next day…

Liberal Democrat conference, Blackpool

My bags are packed and I hi-tailed it out of town on Saturday morning from Euston. On the train, I sit down and the woman across the aisle from me immediately asks me if I am Lynne Featherstone. I cannot tell a lie! Actually, she turned out to be a constituent living in Creighton Avenue on her way to Glasgow to visit her Mum and we had a few enjoyable hours putting the world to rights; if only we were in charge!

Blackpool may well be a wonderful place for stag nights and hen parties for the young, drunk and noisy, but – sober and middle-aged, truly sorry and no offence meant, it would not be my first choice. Every time I enter the Winter Gardens – which is the conference centre – I try and imagine what nightmares were haunting the author of the design brief. Must have been truly evil!

The Conference Hotel is adequate – but is nowhere near the Winter Gardens and so the delegates are consigned to spending a good part of each day travelling between the two from main hall debates at the Winter Garden to all the fringe meetings at the main hotel and others. In fact, the local authority provided a free shuttle bus – but hardly anyone was told.

But to the business. My guess is – as always – that the media will focus on whether Lib Dems are going to the right or the left and whether Charlie boy’s leadership will be challenged. I turn out to be right on both counts. I do one fringe meeting on the right/left kafuffle. The title of the event is ‘Can the Liberal Democrats be part of a Progressive Consensus’? This is hosted by the Independent Newspaper and chaired by Steve Richards who does the early Sunday morning politics show on GMTV. (You can read my speech on my website).

I have a go a Gordon Brown – basically. Don’t believe he is capable of a consensus – progressive or otherwise. Or more accurately, Brown’s progressive consensus is just that – OK so long as you agree with him. Anyway – as everyone knows – I think Brown is a coward who keeps his head down below the parapet when the going gets tough, votes a straight New Labour ticket, is the author of the astronomically expensive and appalling part-privatisation of the tube and who broods in the shadows whilst waiting for Tony’s tide to go out.

But what the media really, really want – is for the Liberal Democrats to tear themselves apart on the basis that those of us who fight or represent old Tory seats will want to shift to the right and those of us who fight or represent old Labour seats (like me) will want to be on the centre-left of the political spectrum.

Clearly a disappointing night then as all four of us speakers – Simon Hughes, David Laws, Vince Cable and myself – in one way or another all argue that it isn’t a matter of right left – it’s about Liberal values. Especially when the Labour government is knee-jerking poorly thought out legislation into being and striking at the principles of justice and freedom that make our country what it is.

The other great debate going on is about multiculturalism and what it means to be British, particularly after 7/7.

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has thrown down the gauntlet with a nifty little sound bite: ‘we are sleepwalking our way into segregation’. His thesis being that we live in our cultural enclaves and mix less and less. Statement of the bleeding obvious I should say – although it strikes me lots of politicos are fundamentally in denial whilst a Sky TV poll clearly puts over 80% + of real people in line with that thesis.

I get two bites at this issue. I speak at a fringe meeting and then there is also a debate in the main hall.

For the debate, conference has introduced a new format where representatives send in their preferred topic for a discussion on an urgent issue. There is no motion or vote – but people’s views are taken back and with further work and consultation a motion will then be brought back to the next conference for decision. It’s my job to summate the debate.

I have my own views too- and whilst I do think we are becoming a segregated society, I don’t think the 7/7 bombers were making a statement about poverty or alienation when they blew us up or that solving the issues of poverty and alienation in our ethnic communities will have anything but a tiny effect on terrorism in ours or any Western country. Terrorists don’t generally come from the poorest or most alienated.

However, history has given us a bit of a lesson about where extremists go to find fodder for their causes. So whilst tackling poverty and alienation won’t directly stop terrorism, it will help make it harder for terrorists to recruit support in future.

I also chair two of the keynote speeches in the main hall. The second one is for my Home Affairs team leader – Mark Oaten – our Shadow Home Secretary. So with only a sentence or two to say I introduce him as the ‘toughest Liberal I know’ – a phrase picked up by the media sketch writers for the Telegraph and the Guardian! Mark had said a couple of days earlier that he would kill me if I introduced him thus – but I did it purposefully as I believe that ‘tough liberalism’ is the way forward – particularly in terms of law and order.

Mark gave a bravura speech.

I (and you will thank me for this) am not going to go through every fringe I spoke at – but I was allowed to pontificate on a much wider range of subjects than ever before. In my previous incarnation I was kept pretty much to my policing and transport portfolios. This time – outside of my usual training sessions for the party on ‘How we Won Hornsey & Wood Green’ and ‘Grow your Own Target Seat’, I covered Lords – the Last Bastion of Freedom?, What Difference would Electoral Reform make to Women? (not a great deal in my view); The Future of our Towns; Making the Breakthrough (or how to get our arses into gear in the 100+ seats we are second to Labour in for next time); Blogging and so on.

New experience for me (it is always great to do something you have never done before) was something called GNS. I had to go and do the radio responses on what Mark Oaten had said about breaking the consensus around Labour’s proposed new terrorist legislation. Whilst we support three of the proposals – an offence of training for terrorism, incitement to terrorism and acts preparatory to terrorism – we can’t support an offence ‘glorification of terrorism’ or the ‘three months detention without trial’. Briefly – the ‘glorification’ one is just too wide a definition. It would turn into a feast for lawyers all interpreting (as is their job) but with such a wide spectrum that it would be very hard for such legislation to be effective – and you don’t want the real terrorist dodging around the new legislation because it is poor and they have a good lawyer.

The other – three months detention – strikes at the very heart of our principles of justice – and is another form of internment. Moreover, having seen how stop and search works in practice when I was on the Metropolitan Police Authority – it would be just too easy for profiling to lead to autom
atic three month detention on suspicion – and suspicion as we tragically know from the Met shooting an innocent Br
azilian isn’t enough. And if after 14 days they need more evidence and more time, there are other ways. They currently put people under surveillance and the numbers are not such that that would be too difficult or expensive. In fact it might very well concentrate the police mind on intelligence-based evidence rather than suspicion. Three months internment would make them casual in their rigour.

Anyway – none of this was the point of my tale. The tale was about the GNS process. I was to speak for eight minutes to each BBC radio station around the country – live! So with headphones on in a tiny studio and with an electronics box – one after another station around the country dialled me up and did the interview. It was pretty tough going. I was just brilliant by about the fifth one – when I had got all my best lines in place – but definitely going off the boil with over-confidence by the ninth! But – as I say – had never even heard of this type of interview before.

And so – the rest was a late dinner with friends and pretty early to bed – and yes – it really was all work!