Going, going, … gone?

Listening to the news. Jacqui Smith gone. Hazel Blears gone. To live through and witness the end of the old order is a sombre experience – a necessary experience – but a sombre and sobering one.

As the government of this country goes into free fall – the shameful secrets of the establishment unmasked – the flawed character of a Prime Minister who doesn’t understand leadership in a modern age – the calculated death by a thousand knives as they plunge into Gordon Brown today – each one landing another death blow – as cabinet ministers murder the man who put them where they are. Et tu brute?

So – just coming up to PMQs. Cannot imagine at a human level how you get up and go out there to fight your corner when the pressure is so immense it must be hard even to breathe. Quite how Gordon Brown will be able to form a new administration as all these blows rain in, I don’t know. He should accept the inevitable and resign. Given his character he may not. But if he cannot form an administration – it might not be out of character for him to go to the Palace next week and let loose the dogs of war.

I never knew it would be like this.

Ten most popular blog postings (1st quarter, 2009)

Here’s what you’ve been reading the most on my blog over the last three months:

10. Lap dancing in Crouch End – one of the big local issues coming up for decision

9. Heading up the party’s Technology Board – see number 1.

8. Sharon Shoesmith – see number 2.

7. Reading the Baby P Serious Case Review – see number 2.

6. Why the number of female MPs matters – see why I think so.

5. What should you do with your emails? – a fun way to demonstrate to Jacqui Smith what’s wrong with the government’s latest plans to keep tabs on what we’re all doing.

4. Not so equal pay at Cambridge University – not Cambridge University at its best.

3. Politicians and Twitter: why The Times is wrong – not The Times at its best.

2. Sharon Shoesmith in The Guardian – I’ve found this blog really useful during the Baby P tragedy, as it’s given me the chance to raise issues and expound on my views at the length the issue demands, but which the media rarely gives MPs.

1. Are you a techno wizard? – no surprise that news about the Liberal Democrats online (and other) work should attract the attention of an online audience!

The Sky News poll results are in…

Thanks again to the team over at Sky News at this year. – I come in at number two in their Valentine’s Day ‘Most Fanciable MP’ (and they’ve used a photo that is one of my favourites – not always the case!). Despite the methodology used by Sky – possibly the most unscientific in world history – they have made an old, valentineless woman very happy. What I want to know though – is if I’m so fanciable – where are my suitors?

Sky Press release:

Andy Burnham Voted ‘Most Fanciable MP’

Andy Burnham, Labour MP for Leigh in Greater Manchester and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Saturday 14 February) is preparing for his letter box to be inundated with romantic cards and gifts this Valentine’s day – after being voted the ‘Most Fanciable MP’ by Sky News’ Boulton & Co blog, www.skynews.com/boultonandco

The poll was compiled by Sky News and first time entrant into the list Burnham, has gone straight to the top of the love chart.

Andy Burnham, 39, told Sky News:

“I am very flattered to receive this accolade but if I can win it clearly shows people are not spoilt for choice and that politics really is show-business for ugly people. However, I have to say I am not looking forward to seeing the size of my mother’s phone bill, I just hope Ofcom won’t be launching a vote rigging enquiry.”

Last year’s winner, Conservative MP for Surrey South West, Jeremy Hunt, has dropped off the Top Ten list altogether. The highest ranking female is Lynne Featherstone, Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, who comes in second, up three places from last year. Other female entries include Liberal Democrat MP for Falmouth and Cambourne, Julia Goldsworthy, Labour MP for Don Valley and Minister for Europe Caroline Flint and Labour MP for Redditch, Inkberrow, Feckenham and Cookhill. Home Secretary Jacquie Smith also gets a Valentine’s day treat, as a new entry in the chart at number 10. Nick Clegg is the only party leader to make the top 10, with Gordon Brown and David Cameron both absent from the list. The list was compiled by Sky News political producers and correspondents.

Lynne Featherstone is one of only three MPs to survive last year’s list – Julia Goldsworthy has dropped two places to fifth with Nick Clegg remaining in eighth position. Last year there were no cabinet members on the list, this year all five of the Labour MP’s listed are members of the cabinet.

Here is the final list (last year’s rankings in brackets) for ‘Most Fanciable MP’ 2009, which includes five Labour MPs, three Liberal Democrat MPs and two Conservative MPs.

1. (-) Andy Burnham, 39, Labour, Leigh
2. (5) Lynne Featherstone, 57, Lib Dem, Hornsey & Wood Green
3. (-) Adam Afriyie, 43, Conservative, Windsor
4. (-) Ed Vaizey, 40, Conservative, Wantage
5. (3) Julia Goldsworthy, 30, Lib Dem, Falmouth & Camborne
6. (-) Ed Miliband, 39, Labour, Doncaster North
7. (-) Caroline Flint, 47, Labour, Don Valley
8. (8) Nick Clegg, 42, Lib Dem, Sheffield Hallam
9. (-) David Miliband, 43, Labour, South Shields
10. (-) Jacqui Smith, 46, Labour, Redditch

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!

The Queen's Speech

Bizarre in the House today. Having duly trekked from Commons to Lords when summoned by Black Rod for the Queen’s Speech – I managed to get a view of the Queen. And looking around at the tiaras, long evening dresses and the goldest of thrones – whilst I couldn’t see the relevance to anything in the real world – it aint half a sight to be seen.

Later when the House sat, the Speaker made a statement in relation to Damian Green’s arrest. Feelings are running high in Parliament at the fact that the police were allowed in without a warrant – extraordinary. Several members made the point that whilst MPs are not above the law – nor are the police.

It’s quite hard to tell which indignation is real and which manufactured. Was this really about a threat to national security? The leaked stuff we know about would suggest no, but Jacqui Smith seemed to say last Sunday on Marr that there was more – but we just weren’t in the know. Was this authored by senior civil servants? Was it because there was annoyance and embarrassment to the Government or was it a genuine case that the police had to investigate?

Either way – I cannot believe this was the right way to go about things. The public have a right to exepct that information they give to their MP to help with a case will be kept confidential and – just as with other professions – only released to someone else under very clear and strict rules.

As for the Queen’s Speech itself – pretty dull. There was predictably yet another Criminal Justice Bill and Home Affairs Bill. Strangely – there was nothing about housing in the speech at all.

But hey – rabbit out of hat – Brown suddenly announces apropos of nothing that there will be a two year break for people who come upon hard times! So – yes it grabbed the headlines – but no it wasn’t part of the Queen’s Speech – and no there was no information about who would pay!

Cross-party group criticises plans for 42 days detention without trial

In a normal world, having a cross-party groups of experts examine a policy and come up with major criticisms would be reason enough for the government to change course, but I fear that’s not going to happen … for as the BBC reports today:

The government has still not done enough to protect individual liberty in its anti-terror plans, an influential committee of MPs and peers says.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith unveiled a series of amendments earlier this week aimed at heading off a Commons defeat.

But in a new report the joint committee on human rights said the safeguards were “inadequate”.

And plans to hold terror suspects for up to six weeks without charge would “almost certainly not be lawful”…

Committee chairman Labour MP Andrew Dismore said: “The government has talked of a major emergency, the ‘nightmare scenario’ of simultaneous plots across Britain or two 9/11s at once.

“Yet the amendments tabled by the government provide for possible events falling well short of that.”

The report also said requiring the home secretary to declare publicly there was a serious enough emergency to justify the powers was not much of a safeguard without independent scrutiny.

And allowing Parliament to vote on the individual case within seven days – another concession – would make little difference as any debate would be “heavily circumscribed by the risk of prejudicing future trials”.

The Home Secretary's kebab-buying habits

Well, well – Home Secretary Jacqui Smith seems to have made a right mess of talking about the dangers of walking out at night.

This was in fact the topic of second newspaper column I ever wrote. It was for the Ham & High, back in 2000 and started with a personal anecdote:

A man followed me home from the tube last Wednesday night. It was about 11.30pm. He had been in my carriage from Warren Street, got off at Highgate, was behind me on the first escalator, behind me on the second escalator up to Archway Road – and as I headed up the hill, I was conscious that so did he.

The few people who had started in the same direction, faded away within the first 100 metres – so it was just he and I. I crossed the road – at a point where the pavement narrowed so it would look like the natural thing to do. So did he. When I came to the turn I needed to take – so did he – albeit once again on the opposite side. I was ready for flight – was looking for which houses had lights on, which doors were near. Suddenly he ran across the road towards me and then, with a spurt of speed, arrived on the pavement ahead of me and accelerated away.

Once he was ahead of me and I had him properly in my sights, I felt OK. And then, of course, he crossed the road and went up a drive, got his keys out of his pocket, opened his front door and went home to hearth and family. He had obviously run to get ahead of me to stop me thinking he was following me. Men and women reading this will probably recognise this situation – a woman thinking she’s being followed and a man knowing that she’s thinking he is following her. That’s the situation we have arrived at because we feel unsafe, going home late at night – whether we are or not. (Continued here)

That night, things ended safely for me – as they have indeed on numerous journeys around London, often late at night returning from meetings and events in previously unfamiliar locations.

Yet there are many victims of crime – and even more who have their lives limited and curtailed by their fears of crime (sometimes well founded, sometimes not – but in both cases the fear of crime feels just as real, is just as unpleasant and can have just as limiting an effect on people’s lives). So the question of crime – both actual and fear of – is one I’m happy to debate and discuss – and was/is a major campaigning point of mine both on the London Assembly and then in Parliament.

Jacqui Smith though has got the issue all wrong. Not once, but twice she’s sounded as if she doesn’t understand at all how the rest of us live – saying that no real people are ever out walking in Hackney after midnight (hello? have you looked?) and then that she never walks somewhere she doesn’t already know (hello again? I can’t imagine living my life never walking somewhere that I don’t already know – how do you manage to only walk somewhere you’ve already driven, cycled etc through?).

One slip of the tongue – fair enough, we all can mangle a word, leave out a word or fluff a line. But to do it twice and at some length – sorry Jacqui, you’ve really messed up. And you’d be better off admitting that, rather than have the rather bizarre attempt to rescue matters by having your spokesperson ring the media talking about your late-night kebab-buying habits.

Two more voices speak out against extending detention without trial

There’s something quite bizarre about the drive to extend the period people can be detained without trial to 90 days. We’ve already had the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, admitting there hasn’t been a single terrorist case so far where more than the current 28 days limit was needed.

Today two more significant voices spoke out. First was the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, who told the Home Affairs Select Committee that he had seen no evidence to go beyond 28 days – and that he would even have resigned from the Government to fight Labour’s attempt to get 90 days previously.

Also appearing today was Ken Macdonald, head of the Crown Prosecution Service – and so right there at the heart of decisions over whether or not enough evidence has been gathered in cases to proceed with a prosecution. His verdict? He is “satisfied” with the current 28 day limit and that he hasn’t seen any cases that would have required a longer period.

So, why oh why is Labour (or, to be fair – some parts of Labour) still so eager to increase the limit?

And why does all this matter in the end? It’s because not everyone the police arrests is guilty. Innocent people get arrested and detained too.

Extending the amount of time people can be detained isn’t just some cost-free exercise to punish the nasty; we should remember also the innocent people who get detained – locked up, separated from their families, taken away from their jobs – with who knows what to return to afterwards. That’s an awful trail of wreckage to make out of someone’s life – and no way should we risk more of that happening without an utterly convincing case as to why longer detention without trial would really help.

Nick Clegg gives it some welly

Credit where it’s due – Nick (Clegg) gave his Home Affairs Queen’s Speech some welly! I can’t see how the Government has the balls to try and bring back an extension to detention without charge. There is no evidence to demand it. You know – I don’t think there is a single MP in the House from any party who would not vote an extension if proper evidence was put before us demonstrating a genuine need.

And some silly twit on the Labour benches when Nick was espousing this mouthed the word ‘soft’. That is the type of rubbish that damages and plays politics with this issue – one of the most serious decision that we have to make: how to balance security and liberty. It is our responsibility as Parliamentarians to get the balance right. And it doesn’t help when idiot MPs rubbish anything other that auto-compliance with any and every request regardless of its merits.

And it doesn’t help that last time when they wanted 90 days they were essentially crying wolf and using a dodgy dossier of evidence. This time round, even Labour’s Home Secretary herself – Jacqui Smith – has admitted there hasn’t yet been a case where a longer period of detention would have been needed.

So – don’t treat us like children. Don’t sabre rattle. Don’t ask for more than you can prove is necessary! Then – we can work for a consensus. Consensus is NOT you say what you want and we agree. And being serious about reaching across the political divide to reach agreement doesn’t involve stupid mindless heckles.

Government’s death sentence for Iraqi employees: a first-hand account

The reality of the Government’s death sentence to Iraqi employees has been really brought home to me by an email sent to me because of my activity on this issue by an Iraqi translator working for the British in Iraq. Because I want to protect him I can’t give too many details but here’s a bit of the email:

I read about you on the internet that you are supported the interpreters asylum matter, so I decided to write about our suffering to you and I appreciate that you are a very busy woman but I trust you to do your best for us and I wish that from you.

He describes his length of service and the job titles (not given to protect). He goes on:

In 2006 I have threatened by militia that hated me because I work and help coalition forces in Iraq, I told my bosses about that but they said we can’t do anything for you because we have nothing to do with civilian and we don’t have any army rules or orders to help you, then I continued my daily work with British army, few days later the militia attacked my house trying to catch me but I was at the work at that time, they beaten my family and told them: we want your son or we will kill all of you!!!!

Since that day I decided to leave my job and change my home place but until this moment the militia trying to find and kill me, I’m always changing my place trying to hidden from them, they know that I left my job but they don’t care, they just want to kill me they called me collaborator and traitorous and they asked everybody know me about my place, they told them: anyone know anything about XXX should tell us immediately and also they said: we will never give up until we catch XXX.

He goes on to say that the Prime Minister’s statement actually attracted more attention by the militia and now they are trying even harder to catch the Iraqi workers; that it is asylum in Britain that they need – not money; and that the British Government processes are too slow and they are facing terrible situations in Basra and could be killed any time.

He goes on with the chilling words:

Madam, I live in a very dangerous situation (it’s like the hell) until this moment the militia keep looking for me trying to kill me because of the kind of my job with British army; they think its VIP job. I can’t even get a job because the militia, I’m jobless since I left my job with British, I’m hidden now but I’m sure one day they will find me because they have many people work under cover for them.

I adjure you to help us, please pass my voice to the British government and please try to put a pressure on the government to do something for us as a quick as possible.

I’m ready to provide you with any thing you need from me.

Well – David Miliband published a Written Ministerial Statement elucidating a bit more and moving a bit on what we Brits are going to do to help those Iraqi workers who worked or are working for us in Iraq and consequently being killed and hunted down for doing so.

The Labour government have behaved appallingly and only after lots of effort on many parts have moved to grudgingly give a package (inadequate) to those in danger. But it doesn’t include their families and it didn’t allow them to come to Britain.

This further statement says they can come – but doesn’t deal with the families, the need for proper contracts with those who work for us, with a webiste, with the slow speed of any package reaching them etc etc.

British forces lives have dependant on the intelligence and work of these Iraqis – the least we can do is repay the favour. The Government is treating these people like they are applying for means tested benefit – not like people who are fleeing for their lives. The 12 months service eligibility criteria is ridiculous. Assessed risk, rather than length of service, should be the main criterion for granting asylum or resettlement packages. The death squads in Iraq don’t stop to ask how long interpreters served for us, so why are we?

Needless to say I will be taking the whole of the email to David Miliband and the Home Secretary to make the case!

(If you want to take action yourself on this – see Dan Haride’s blog and also the Lib Dem Iraqi interpreters site).

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