Five reasons to be serious during the silly season

At the moment the papers are full of “silly season” stories (and blogs seem to be full of stories about how the media are full of silly season stories – we just need the TV to start covering how the blogs are covering … !), but just because J Prescott and G Brown go off on their summer holidays, it doesn’t mean the world stops turning.

So here are five serious (but I hope interesting!) stories that have just caught my eye in between the piece of Lego retrieved from the sea / remember to shake the sand out of your shoes before leaving the beach / etc stories:

a. Good news from the Amazon: the rate of deforestation has fallen by a quarter. Good news for our environment and for us all – which ever country we live in.

b. Sierra Leone has had pretty successful and free elections – and credit where credit’s due, this was one country where Labour’s much vaunted “ethical foreign policy” did seem to amount to something, with effective intervention to stop horrendous violence.

c. Big floods in China, affecting over 1.2 million people. Many stories of individual tragedy – and as with the Brazil story – possibly an interesting impact on us here in the UK too, because – will we see a run of major floods which the Chinese put down to climate change, and so hastens their own action on the global environment?

d. There looks to be a power struggle going on in Iran with the ministers for oil and mines and industry being sacked. With its nuclear potential, oil supplies and influence over Iraq and other countries the fallout could be a big story. Or it might be just a minor shuffling of names. Time will tell us…

e. Fears of the spread of bird flu may have subsided here recently, but it has just accounted for its first human victim on the island of Bali.

In fact – looking at that list again, I’m not sure that the news isn’t more interesting when the silly season arrives!

How John Prescott got it wrong – and why he should apologise to two women

A rant that needs ranting follows the welcome High Court judgement over the sacking of two women from the Bridge New Deal for Communities (NDC) regeneration body in Haringey.

Acting as voluntary chair and vice-chair of its finance committee, Joyce and Ibiola were dismissed after they raised questions about how money was being spent. Residents got up a 600 strong petition to John Prescott – then the man in charge of regeneration. But they got the brush off – and Parliament was told that Prescott and his team were “satisfied that the expulsions were handled fairly”.

Well, that’s not what the High Court decided after looking through the evidence (more details here). So why were Prescott & co satisfied that everything was ok? What investigations did they really carry out on receipt of the petition? And then there is the issue that these two women were trying to bring to light – what happens to all that public money thrown at areas of deprivation with real need? If two people are sacked after asking questions, some tough questions should be asked about what has happened with the money they were concerned about. What shouldn’t happen is what Prescott and co did do – dismiss the petition from 600 residents and say everything is ok.

In fact, the court’s verdict reminds me of my second year as a councillor in Haringey, when I was on the Regeneration Scrutiny Committee and tried to track some of this myself. I could not understand how such large sums of funding could end up with an end result of only around nine jobs being created in the cases we were looking at. Haringey Council may be the ‘accountable’ body for this spending – but what if they are no good? Who and how and to what extent are they checked? Audit – I hear you say! But … there was no audit in this instance since 2001 up until the current date; a question for the Secretary of State I think!

John Prescott at PMQs

Early morning out filming for Sunday’s Politics Show. They will have David Davis in the studio – and the bit they wanted me for was to ruminate on any potential threat from the Tories now they hug hoodies. Not sure that Davis is all love and sunshine; however – you’ll have to wait for the program if you’re interested.

I then watched John Prescott in horror. I don’t know him really, as our political paths haven’t really crossed and he has only stepped into take the PM’s role at Prime Minister’s Questions a couple of times since I became an MP – but it seemed cruel sport.

I don’t rate PMQs as an exemplar way to conduct politics anyway. It is a blood sport and as such is quite compelling but actually pretty nasty stuff. However, just as with hunting, when the prey doesn’t even have a chance it is sheer cruelty. Whilst T Blair can take care of himself – Prescott clearly can’t. I don’t suppose they will let him go before the Blair Switch project is complete – but it would be kinder to leave him with a last vestige of pride.

Charles Clarke

Labour hits the skids. Timing immaculate. Already doing badly in the polls, slated on the doorstep by their own supporters – Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt and John Prescott decide to put the nail in the coffin of the local elections. How far they will fall – no idea.

But to the specifics. After PMQs, Charles Clarke comes to the Dispatch Box to make a Statement on the Deportation of Foreign Nationals. It was a pretty subdued performance really. I mean, what’s a man to say? He tried resigning – and Blair refused – tasking him with making everything all right. Poor sod. So he apologised and said he wanted to stay to sort out the mess. But I don’t think he should stay. Actually, I quite like Charles Clarke the person. He is intelligent and engaging. But – on his watch – this level of incompetence is so staggering (given the many warnings about it) that he has to go. If he were not to go – it would be like saying it doesn’t matter what happens in your department – even when as serious as this. And that continual degrading of standards is not acceptable. There are things that go wrong in any department, any office – and it is a matter of staff not doing something properly and no, I would not expect a Minister to go for run of the mill errors. But the warnings he received, the lack of action following them and the seriousness of the omissions make this a resigning matter.

It would seem, however, that Blair will only ‘let him go’ if public pressure mounts – so if you want to add to public pressure for Clarke to go – visit

There are a number of areas that worry me about the substance of the matter in hand as well. I am less bothered about the ‘foreign’ bit. Yes – of course where a judge has said the criminal should be considered for deportation, then this consideration – and if decided so, deportation – should happen and in good time. And no doubt if one of those roaming our countryside murders or rapes – it will be a huge issue.

However, the bigger questions for me are the incompetence when this issue was flagged up; regardless of nationality – murderers are meant to be followed up on release and sex offenders are meant to be on a register – in other words, for both of these categories we should know where they are. How many released murderers or rapists are wandering around without the authorities keeping appropriate tabs on them? Is this endemic? And what is so complex about a foreign national coming for release. All the prison and the Home Office have to do is talk to each other. It’s not rocket science.

And on top and above, in some ways, all of this – is the exposure it gives to what I regard as one of the worst sides of this Labour Government – its proclivity for producing endless legislation when usually there is perfectly good legislation in place already – just not enforced. That is what this country needs – people doing their job properly using the laws that exist to enable them to do so. That’s why Charles Clarke has to go. If we accept him failing so badly in his job then we cannot expect everyone down the line to do their job properly. New legislation and new action-man headlines don’t change a thing!

Should estate agents share offices?

It’s a busy, busy day. All days are busy – but this is ridiculous. At the Lib Dem Home Affairs Team meeting I give a presentation on police mergers. We have quite a lively discussion. The problem is that the Government is steaming ahead with this lousy, rushed, costly and inappropriate merger program.

Straight into Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions. John Prescott stumbled and bumbled his way through (as the boss is in Australia admitting he had made a mistake to pre-announce that he would go – but not when he would go. Gissa date Tony). I admire him in a way. He gave one good answer to the Tories – that he would rather get his words wrong than his policies – unlike them.

And then the ID card debate came back to the floor of the Commons from where it had pinged in the Lords. The Lords Amendment was rejected by the Commons – and was sent immediately back to the Lords. I could see the way this ping-pong was shaping up – that my tightly timed evening commitments were going to be out the window. I was to speak at Policy Exchange on Police Mergers and then rush to Highgate to the Highgate Society to be on a panel speaking on ways to solve the problems of Highgate Village where there are something like 17 estate agents and a Tescos – and our diverse village is in danger. Save our shops! I say.

Anyway – the way the timing goes I can make the Policy Exchange (because it is only two minutes walk from parliament – so can get back if vote is called) but have to pull out of Highgate as the ID cards debate will come back to the Commons around 9pm. I phone my apologies – but was quite annoyed as very much wanted to put in my two pennies worth. I heard from my sister who went that it was very well attended and that Cllr Bob Hare (councillor for Highgate and a LibDem colleague) had put forward lots of fresh ideas and had been very well received.

I had wanted to take on the estate agents. Seems to me that they all want to say they have an office in Highgate (for prestige). And indeed virtually everyone who lives in Highgate will have bought their house through one of them. At present, there is nothing in planning law that allows control of which types of usage (within a range) can be restricted. So there is work to do at the Parliamentary level to get the law changed. We have an EDM about Business Conservation Areas aimed at this type of thing – but I think we need to find another way.

Anyway – legislation takes forever – so whilst we put our thinking caps on about that – I think the estate agents should get together to share premises. I know – shock horror! But the truth is that most punters visit all the estate agents to register with them – so they wouldn’t care if they were all in one building (in fact it would make it easier). But even if it were only two to a shop – that would half the number of agents in the village. They could still refer to their ‘Highgate Office’ and they would half their running costs and overheads – not to mention rent! Of course they won’t want to even consider it – but they should. I may write to them to see whether they are willing to all come to a discussion about what can be done.

So – the Police Merger event at Policy Exchange went well – but we were all on the same side. Simon Jenkins was there – always good value. This is one that is going to really hit labour at the elections. It is such a dreadful proposal in its current form. Anyway – finish and run back to parliament for the last ID card debate as it comes back from the Lords once more.

This time the new amendment by the Tories suggests that up until December 2009 you will be able to opt out of having an ID card when you get your new passport. Labour in the Lords have agreed – and now if this passes in the Commons – the Tories having completely caved in, flip-flopped, whatever you want to call their disgraceful u-turn yet again on ID cards – that will be that.

And this is a dreadful amendment – no wonder Labour agreed. All it does is mean that when you get a new passport – until December 2009 – you will be able to opt out of the ID card. But you won’t be able to opt-out of the National Database Register – and that is where the real sinister part is; the card is nothing compared to the register.

And the date – December 2009, does not take you past the last possible date for the next general election. Yet the whole point of the new date being set is to take it beyond the next general election so that the parties can go to the country with their promises, clear in their manifestos, of their policy on ID cards.

So wrong date and the National Register now goes ahead. It really is Big Brother and then some.

New Year message

2005 was a bit of a year – and then some.

As I look back over the year – I am thrilled with what we have been able to achieve. No – not just the General Election (clearly a stunning victory turning a Labour majority of 10,514 into a LibDem one of 2,395) but the causes and campaigns I and my LibDem colleagues have championed together with local residents. That’s what has made the difference in Hornsey & Wood Green.

Current battles ongoing perhaps sum up some of what I am trying to do in the constituency – which all boil down to making it a better place for local people to work, rest and play – to quote a famous old advertising tag line. I don’t think aiming for a clean, pleasant and safe environment is asking too much!

I’ll start with the Hornsey concrete factory planning application. London Concrete want to plonk a concrete batching plant on Cranford Way – right bang in the middle of a residential area – with schools and children and narrow streets – just the sort of place for over 300 HGVs per week to wreck the local ambience! I and my LibDem colleagues have been campaigning against this application since the moment it was lodged – together with great local group Green N8.

We passed the first hurdle with Haringey Planning Committee refusing the application – but in the way of the world – the developer has appealed and as I write we are in the middle of the hearings by Her Majesty’s Inspector to whom I gave ‘evidence’ the week before Christmas. You can read the evidence on my earlier blog posting about the concrete factory plans.

I invited both John Prescott and Ken Livingstone to see the evil that would be done. Neither accepted my invitation. Holding baited breath now and crossed fingers – this David and Goliath battle will be settled by the end of January.

Another battle that engages me is the fight against sitting mobile telephone masts near vulnerable people – like young children. The idea is to bring forward legislation that would enable local councils to refuse planning permission on the grounds of the precautionary principle – until such time as we have proof positive of what these masts do or do not do to our health. This doesn’t just happen in Hornsey & Wood Green but up and down the land. And of course, we all do use mobile phones, so we can’t be overly pure. The Government is still proclaiming that there is no evidence of damage to health. I have challenged the Government through Parliamentary channels to do the scientific studies necessary to look at the incidence of cancer around mobile phone masts in situ for 10 years – without which we are all in anecdotal territory. They haven’t responded as yet.

Locally, of course, we occasionally succeed and see off a phone mast application – but they relentlessly return nearby or at the same site but from a different company. Good news though – recently in a statement by the local Head of Planning in regard to refusing a particular mast in Fortis Green, he went as far as to say ALL future applications for mobile masts in the Haringey conservation area will be an outright NO from now on! Watch this space.

I am also still keeping up the pressure on Haringey Primary Care Trust (PCT) over the future of the Hornsey Central Hospital site. Following a long campaign against closure of the old hospital and then a long process of working with local residents and other interested parties – proposals for a new health facility finally came forth from the PCT for a mix of local health services and elderly care. However, dogged by funding problems caused by the withdrawal from renting some of the space by the Health Trust etc delays and fears about its future have crept in. So I recently met yet again with the Chair of the PCT and received personal assurances from him of his commitment to ensuring that the project goes ahead. But there must remain, until the public meeting in the New Year that he has promised me, concerns over what of the original promised facilities will actually proceed and get built.

As for policing – Safer Neighbourhood Teams are what we all want. They are what we have always wanted. But whilst London is promised complete roll-out in the next year – some ‘neighbourhoods’ are being left out. I have long campaigned to get a team into Highgate – and at last am encouraged that we are on our way to success. Highgate is split between three different boroughs. Now no police commander I know – despite their protestations about cross-border working – is willing to commit him or herself to an actual cross-border Safer Neighbourhood Team. So I have brought this to the Metropolitan Police Authority on several occasions. And am helped in my quest by Crystal Palace – ironically. Crystal Palace is split between five areas – and so the MPA are running a pilot there which if successful will be applied to neighbourhoods like Highgate which suffer from divided ownership. The sooner the better!

So – with obviously lots more going on than I can possibly begin to convey in this message – not to mention the fight of our lives against Labour’s attack on the fundamental principles of liberty and justice in our land – I look forward to a challenging and pretty energetic year ahead.

A very Happy New Year to you all!