Just a few things………..

Broke my toe on Thursday morning rushing out door to get to engagement (but did nothing about it except hobble and moan)so hobbled to British Association of Social Workers conference where they had invited me onto a panel to talk about my experiences during Baby P. What was lovely was the amount of social workers who came up to me and thanked me for what I said. I was really pleased – for during the whole Baby Peter tragedy I was very careful to refer to the need for proper support for social workers – and to point to what happened in the Victoria Climbie case. In that case the only person to take the blame was the social worker on the end of the food chain. It was the Labour leadership and chief officers and managers who all got away completely from any consequences – actually it was that that motivated me to speak out when Baby Peter died. I wasn’t going to see another tragedy blamed on the social workers.

But I think it was also what I was saying about the need for an open and transparent culture, about the job being about trusting social workers to use their instincts and critical faculties rather than ticking boxes – and outside of case load reduction – perhaps the main drum I bang is the way that the pendulum has swung far too far towards management holding sway regardless of professional and clinical opinion.

I hobble on to the Spectator Annual Awards where strangely Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson won the main awards. Was it an ironic parting gift to those who would not be in power by the next time the awards come around?

After that, I gave up and came home and put ice packs on my foot and laid down for the evening. I managed to do my advice surgery this morning at Hornsey Library – but then decided I couldn’t go on. I had to reschedule my Big Lottery Tour this afternoon  (as I really can’t walk) so went to the Whittington and then came home. Hoping for tea and sympathy from my children…………………….

To be or not to be?

Of course there should be a debate between the main party leaders. It would put them on their metal in front of the nation – where we pick up all kinds of signals (most of which have little to do with policy) and see how they deal with pressure under fire. One of the problems, however, is that the conditions that are put down before someone like the PM will take part will probably sterilise the process – perhaps even to the point of pointlessness – and the ‘dealing with pressure under’ fire is totally minimised. Secondly – the incumbent has the advantage of office and so never really wants to give the others the exposure – let alone give them a chance to outshine them. And – given Gordon Brown’s cowardice quota (as Chancellor he used to let his junior ministers take the difficult questions at Treasury Questions) it is hard to imagine he will grow the balls to get out there and fight.

But as for someone who loves getting out there and fighting the fight – I have a confession, I’m a bit of a fan of Peter Mandelson. I know – you’re not meant to say things like that and no – I don’t agree with his policies etc etc etc. But this guy is clever, clever, clever – and a real operator.

Although I knew that he ditched Brown for Blair in the leadership contest – and therefore was never to be forgiven – I hadn’t really fully appreciated his Machiavellian talents fully. I just hope that he is keeping extensive and honest notes – because if his autobiography tells the truth one day – it will be the most fascinating read ever.

I remember doing the Westminster Hour on a Sunday night the week that Gordon announced his was bringing Mandelson back from Europe, popping him into the Lords and making him Business Minister. I said that I had been completely taken aback by the move because it was brave, clever, shocking and I didn’t think Gordon had the balls to have the vision to take this brilliant strategic move. Retrospectively, I am now sure that it was Mandelson’s proposal – not Brown’s. And of course – you have to pay the piper – which is why Mandelson now sits on all the important Government committees and pulls the strings. Where will his rise and rise end? Will we see him come back to lead the Labour Party post Brown?

How the Equality and Human Rights Commission is failing women

How many pieces of silver did Peter Mandelson give the Equality and Human Rights Commission to come out in the media this morning basically saying that equality was too expensive during a recession?

Nicola Brewer (Chief Exec of the EHRC) was quoted in The Guardian this morning saying that this was no time to make companies carry out and publish pay audits that would demonstrate the disparity in men and women’s wages.

Mandelson has been sending smoke signals through the trade and right wing press for some weeks now – vilifying any part of the Equalities Bill which might be a cost. But the scandal of women’s pay (compared to men) – even now, 30 years after the Equal Pay Act – is something that this Government said it would address in the Bill.

Ms Harman keeps assuring me in Parliament that they are committed to equality but that pay audits must be voluntary not mandatory. Well – we saw how effective voluntary codes were in banking!

Clearly from these weasly words from the EHRC the Government wants to be able to point at their statement as referred credibility for backing away from any commitment to real equality. The EHRC should be ashamed of themselves. They are meant to fight for equality – not be lackies for Labour’s failed commitments.

Ironically, to mark International Women’s Day, we had a debate in the chamber on ‘Support for Women (Economic Downturn)’ – the gist of which was that women are particularly vulnerable in a recession as they usually have less financial resilience and are already much disadvantaged through things like unequal pay etc. As I said in the debate, “The needs of those who face discrimination do not stop where the needs of British businesses begin.”

But clearly Mandelson, Harman and the EHRC are going to let us eat cake!

Will Harriet Harman or Peter Mandelson triumph?

Well – if Peter Mandelson says he wants a clampdown on any expansion of flexi-time or family friendly policies – then it makes the warning I gave on Thursday night very timely!

I warned that the recession would see business hawks targeting the very good laws that already exist and the few beneficial ones to come from the Single Equalities Bill (due in this Parliamentary session) in the name of helping the economy. But actually – giving your staff good conditions is what helps you get the very best staff – and in tough times that’s exactly what firms need! Not to mention families too needing flexible time most when times are tough and people are under pressure.

So it will be war in the cabinet as the business hawks try and strip away equality in the name of business. And in this melee – guess which side the Tories will be on.

Let’s see what Ms Harman is made of as she wades into battle with the business hawks. She clearly lost the battle to have mandatory pay audits – retreating to very weak voluntary audits. Let’s see what she manages this time…

Parliamentary season kicks off again

Back to The Westminster Hour last night – and the gang is all there. They are kicking off for the new Parliamentary season with the three of us – me, Ed Vaizey and Emily Thornberry.

Before that it was a busy day campaigning for Nigel Scott in the Alexandra Ward by-election which takes place on Thursday (Yom Kippur). In fact, I have referred Haringey’s refusal to change to avoid the clash to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as religious Jews are actually forbidden to make a mark during their holy day. Of course – that doesn’t change the date but maybe it will help concentrate Haringey Council’s mind in the future – councils have a choice over which day to pick for by-elections, and that choice should be used with more care and thought.

Sarah Ludford (MEP) took a team in the morning delivering – in the pouring rain! Thanks Sarah.

Much of the political news is still dominated by Peter Mandelson’s return. The Conservatives’ line on it is that ‘Labour must be desperate’. Desperate they may be – but this was a political finesse I really didn’t think Gordon capable of. However – it now looks more and more as if Tony Blair ‘told’ him to go and help. Oh what an ironic twist that one old foe of Gordon’s told him to bring back another old foe to try to save his skin!

The return of Peter Mandelson

Blimey – who ever would have thought that Gordon had the balls to bring back Peter Mandelson? In my view – a master stroke – unless M messes up again. Which is a gamble – though still as he said on the news clips – third time lucky. But in terms of keeping your enemies close and your friends even closer – bringing in Mandelson (who manages to be both enemy and friend) that close is to undermine the Blairite underminers of Gordon and bring in someone who is clever and regarded as experienced in trade and industry. Hmmmmmm – it will probably end in tears – but it is derring-do!

The Doha trade talks: my first question time

Today was the first International Development Questions since I’ve taken over as the Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. The ways the questions work is that there is a list of questions that will be orally asked of the International Development Secretary of State or his Ministers and they are published on what is called the Order Paper. We precede Prime Ministers’ Questions and have half an hour for questions and answers.

Each question on the Order Paper is answered by the Minister or Secretary – and then the author of the oral question can ask one supplementary, and also other people can join in. As Shadow Secretary of State – I get called by Mr Speaker to chip in on any question on the Order Paper that I choose – but with such a time limit it would be risky not to go on one of the first three questions as it can be quite a long time on one question if there are a lot of people standing to catch Mr Speaker’s eye.

I decided to come in on Question 3 on the Doha Trade talks:

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)
There have recently been warm words from Europe and America about reinvigorating the Doha talks, but I am not convinced that there is any real political will behind that. It was certainly not at the top of the agenda of the President’s “State of the Union” speech last night. What new and different steps has the Secretary of State taken recently to break the inertia and take advantage of the different political landscape that now exists in the American Congress?

Mr. Thomas
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment as shadow Secretary of State for International Development. Let me repeat what I have said in response to earlier questions. The EC representative, Peter Mandelson, has taken part in constructive discussions, as did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his visit to the United States just before Christmas. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry held useful and productive discussions with their Indian counterparts last week, and we continue to talk to our allies in Europe with the aim of advancing the EC’s position further.

There are signs of progress, but we still have some way to go. Obviously we need to do more to lock down the deal which, as I think is recognised by Members in all parts of the House, is fundamental if developing countries are to make the progress that we all want in order to achieve the millennium development goals.

We are also after the Government over the BAe scandal (dropping of corruption inquiry by Labour). Hilary Benn is the ministerial champion for combatting international corruption. So we asked him whether he had been consulted by the Government over their decision to drop the prosecution. No – said Hilary – they hadn’t consulted him and that was OK because they did not need to. Now if I were Hilary I would be livid to not be consulted. We (my colleague Martin Horwood more accurately) were then hoping to get called in PMQs that followed so that he could then ask Tony Blair why he hadn’t consulted his champion for combatting corruption – but sadly – Mr Speaker again failed to call a single LibDem on a supplementary. He hasn’t called one this year!