Managed to get called during Business Questions – which is a quaint way of bringing constituency issues to the fore and asking the Leader of the House (Labour MP Jack Straw) for a debate. The debate I asked for was on the rate of grant from the government for statutory support for asylum seekers.
In Haringey we happily provide support for a very high level of asylum seekers. But if you take even just one element of Government funding support – the rates for looking after unaccompanied asylum seeker children – the grant doesn’t come anywhere near the actual cost. And even worse – not only does the Government funding not cover the costs, but the costs racked up by the Government’s failure to make asylum decisions quickly – because much of the cost in that maintenance is due during the period whilst the Home Office (that oh so fit for purpose establishment) takes years to process the legality or otherwise of the asylum seeker.
It is completely unfair and unsustainable on those areas where asylum seekers naturally congregate.Jack Straw’s answer – he would pass on my remarks to the Home Office and a slagging off for the LibDems in general. That really raised the tone!
In fact I have just written to Jack Straw over his outburst last week on knives. My Lib Dem colleague, Mark Hunter, raised the issue of lengthening sentences for carrying a knife in a public place and Jack just ranted about Lib Dems opposing longer sentences for knife crime. This is misleading Parliament in the first degree (i.e. untrue! and you can check in Hansard from report stage of Bill in Commons). Not only is this assertion factually incorrect but also completely unwarranted. In response to the recent surge in knife crime, a Liberal Democrat sponsored amendment was laid down in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill (on which I lead for my party) that would increase the sentence for carrying of a knife in a public place to seven years. This amendment was not voted on as a Conservative amendment, take before it ,which would have increased the sentence to five years was defeated by the Government. So the truth is – Labour voted against increasing the penalty for carrying a knife in a public place.
The Bill is coming back to the Commons for Lords Amendments next Monday and Labour will be tabling an amendment to make the sentence four years (which is better than the current tariff), and although it doesn’t extend it far enough in my view it is a step in the right direction. I will go into this further when I write up my blog after the debate next Monday.
Arrived in Brighton for conference on Saturday and rushed for briefing by Ming. Then walk out to seafront on Ming’s right arm to greet the media. The media are interested in tax – are we giving up our much loved 50p policy? – and Charles – how will his speech on Tuesday go? Ming gave a good answer – ‘there will be no clapometer’ and he robustly defended parties having real debates on substantive issues without them being “high noon” for the leadership. It’s obviously not a competition and Charles is one of our stars so I expect Charles will lay out some ideas – at least that is what I hope, as that is one of his great strengths.
And lastly – top of the pops for media questions – is this conference a test of Ming’s leadership?
Well – every conference is a test of leadership. Ming will do a good job. He is very charming, intelligent and oozes integrity from every pore – but there’s no doubt that all eyes will be upon him. That’s leadership!
Both Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning see me and the rest of the Home Affairs Team (Nick Clegg and Mark Hunter) holding special sessions. The one on the Saturday with us as a team being there for our party members to question, raise issues, tell us the party’s policies and issues that they feel need addressing and inform us what they think of how the Home Affairs Team is doing!
Today’s session was a more formal consultation on the consultation paper on crime produced by the crime working group chaired by Graham Tope – my former London Assembly and Metropolitan Police Authority colleague. Crime and anti-social behaviour remain the key issues – not Labour’s endless headlines and talk about being tough, but for Lib Dems it’s what works that matters. Rhetoric doesn’t make out streets safer.
First thing this morning I did my first webcast from conference. This is a new ‘feature’ during the Lib Dem conference with daily feeds from Ming, Duncan Brack (Chair of Conference) and myself each doing a minute or two filming to go up on the party website so that members can have a taste of what each of us makes of what’s going on.
Run in to Parliament – not literally – to prepare for Home Office Questions. Lively debate between Nick Clegg (No 1 in the Lib Dem Home Affairs team), Mark Hunter (No 3) and myself (No 2) on which subject to go on. ID cards narrowly squeaked it ahead of asylum and immigration and the robbery figures to be released later this week.
The new Minister for ID cards, Joan Ryan, has a very hard time defending the indefensible and Nick has some dynamite statistics. 88 million American identities have been stolen. A single master database such as is envisaged for the ID scheme will provide a great big honey pot for criminals to steal from.
Mark’s researcher tells us that our visit to Heathrow next Monday is now off. We were originally invited by the group running the immigration operation at Heathrow to come for a visit. But when we said yes we would like to come, it then it had to go through Immigration National Department and then we needed the permission of the minister – and now eight weeks later they had phoned to say the date was no good. What are they scared of? You might think they were blocking our visit…
After Home Affairs questions there was, not surprisingly, a statement by the Foreign Affairs Minister (in the Foreign Secretary’s absence) on the Middle East. Listening to the statement and ensuing debate, I return to my view yesterday but even more so: the only solution is negotiation and all the huffing and puffing in the chamber, and all the hand wringing about how important it is to get back to the road map, is no substitute for real action and commitment both now – when it is vital to bring forward a ceasefire – and in the future – when there is no crisis and no world’s media looking on.
Education! Education! Education! Labour, supported by the Tories, push through their dreadful Education Bill this week – the one that moves the deckchairs, that will allow McDonalds to run a school and which does nothing to address standards within schools or meet children’s needs. There are a few Labour rebels – but with the unwavering and pretty uncritical support of the now cuddly Tories – our school system moves nearer to disaster.
Nick Clegg, myself , Roger Williamsand Mark Hunter (the Home Affairs Front Bench Team) joined by Simon Hughes, party president, go to the Passport Office to hand in our old passports and apply for new ones. This is to illustrate our protest at the Government forcing all of us to go onto the National ID database at the point at which we get a new passport. It doesn’t start for a while – but is against their manifesto pledge that the ID card / database would be voluntary. They’ve broken that promise (surprise, surprise) – by linking it to renewing passports are basically making it mandatory. But if you renew your passport before these rules come in – you can put off joining the register for 10 years. But which time who know who will have won an election and maybe scrapped the whole scheme.
I truly don’t think this will hit home with the public until they twig when and as they renew – but as the nation wakes up to the cost and the consequences – I am still hopeful that it can be stopped. The big problem will be how much has already been spent by the time this happens – too many billions that could have gone on effective crime-fighting measures – like more police – and there will be no turning back.
You can sign the Lib Dem petition against ID cards and also find out how you can renew your own passport (if you have one) before the Big Brother database kicks in at the Lib Dem website.
Having got, finally, to Harrogate – I’m on as one of the main speaker at the evening rally.
The room was packed with probably about 400 or so delegates. I would love to think it was me they came to listen to – but I expect the attendance had more to do with the imminent speech of the new leader. I was the last speaker for the rally which was called ‘Meeting the Challenge’ and I was proposing a radical agenda on the inequalities that are widening under the Blair regime.
My speech goes down really well (if I say so myself)! But happily – lots of other people say so too! Then there was a couple of minutes from each of the most recent by-election winners – Mark Hunter, Willie Rennie and Sarah Teather. Duncan Brack, who is Chair of Conference Committee introduced one speaker thus:
‘There is an Australian rock musician called Mark Hunter. There is an American navel officer called William Rennie. But there is only one Sarah Teather!’
I thought that was witty!
And then the grand entry of our new leader. And Ming was on good form. He has seemed very happy and confident since his win. He reiterates the crusade against poverty and that he will arm our party with the campaigning tools we need to match the other parties. He is certainly saying all the right things.
I go back to my room and find a message on my phone from the Press Office to say that Question Time have bumped me off the program next Thursday in favour of Nick Clegg – as he is on the Ming team and therefore because of the result they want a Minger!
Then I go to dinner with the World This Weekend team, who have invited me, Paul Marshall and Michael Moore. It was really very pleasant evening. However, the snow and ice was vicious outside and I had to hang onto Brian Hanrahan all the way back for dear life!