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!

Has Tony Blair been copying me?

Over the weekend I caught up on exactly what Ton Blair said in his recent speech about race relations … and it looks like what he’s now saying is (in some key respects) remarkably similar to what I’ve been saying! Perhaps he’s been reading my chapter on race relations in the recently published book – Britain after Blair

Not sure how I should react to finding he’s now saying the same things as me!

One of the topics was twinning faith schools together (in my chapter as co-siting faith schools) and my thesis that our historic state funding, albeit with the best intentions, of separateness with different races or faith groups in different community silos has to change to state funding for togetherness.

Now perhaps too we can update our history to better reflect what makes the country it is – knowing about Suliman the Great matters rather more now than the unification of Italy in understand the backgrounds that make up our country.

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.

90 days detention without charge

Dash up to do live Sky interview for 8.30am. But due to breaking news – Tony Blair in Afghanistan, with a live feed – they say can I stay for 9.00 live, and then after that I do a pre-record on 90 days detention without charge, why prisoners shouldn’t be able to claim working tax credits and the billions spent on the Iraq war.

Lord Goldsmith’s pronouncement that the Government should not go back to Parliament to ask for 90 days extension to detention without charge without compelling evidence is very welcome. And whilst the media term this a split within government ranks – I welcome it as a breath of fresh air. The Government has being playing politics with the terrorist issue – and it is far too serious an issue for them so to do.

No politician, whatever their persuasion, would deny that in extremis our usual patterns of life and rights would warrant abeyance and disruption for the duration. What is not acceptable is a Government who seeks to rattle sabres without sound basis – and then criticise opposition politicians for questioning their demand.

10 out of 10 to Lord Goldsmith.

Meanwhile – someone emails me that I have made it to the top of the weekly round up of blog postings collated by Tim Worstall. I go and check it out and am really pleased as (a) the piece he picked is quite long – and it shows that people actually are willing to read quite long pieces of text in this sound-bite world, (b) that the piece is being read as intended and (c) Tim says some nice words about me! So – thank you Tim.

Youth justice

Mad dash for Prime Minister’s Questions; I still haven’t been pulled out of the weekly ballot for a PMQ (that’s how most MPs get to ask the Prime Minister a question – names go in a hat and are pulled out at random). Then off to Cardiff to the Youth Justice Conference. I am part of a panel of experts speaking and answering questions as the last session of the day. It was a huge affair – and Blair (Tony) had sent a video message to the 800+ attendees and Cameron will be there tomorrow for a keynote speech – hopefully still hugging hoodies.

On the panel – the Lord Chief Justice, the Welsh Assembly Member, the Chief Constable and myself were all roughly singing from the same hymn sheet. We are all sick to death of this ‘tough’ versus ‘soft’ political environment where in reality – it’s what works that matters. It was clear from the panellists and the whole audience that those in the field are desperate to move away from the political rhetoric and get on with what works – which often is community sentencing or secure children’s units rather than crime school (prison). It has to be about changing behaviour not mouthing empty slogans. The Chief Justice was saying that the problem is that often people think community sentencing is a soft option – but it isn’t. There is a project in Chard where community sentencing has meant that the re-offending rate is just 5%. Compare that with the 70% for young males coming out of prison. No contest!

Police Justice Bill

Leading for the Liberal Democrats in Parliament on the Police Justice Bill today – which means pressure! What always astonishes me is that although it takes months for a Bill to wend its way through the legislative process in both Houses of Parliament, when it is due to come to the Chamber, it is so utterly rushed. Third reading in the Lords on the Thursday, Hansard published on Friday (needed so you can read up on what was said, what happened and why etc) and back in the Commons for Lords amendments on the Monday. So frantic weekend preparing – but even then you don’t know what amendments will be taken in what order – as that only came through at lunchtime today.

The big issue was extradition – because we on the Lib Dem side believe that – in a nutshell – our treaty with the USA means they can extradite our citizens much easier than we can get theirs. The Without going into the nitty gritty that had the lawyers in the house slavering – it’s not fair! Oor extradition expert, David Heath, did a great job on extradition

The rumours were that the vote would be close – possibly even a defeat for the Government. And given the number of Labour ministers in the lobbies (including Tony Blair – who often does not vote) I guess the Labour whips must have thought they might lose. It was close – but not that close. Close enough, however, for it to be likely that the House of Lords will have another go on this when the Bill goes back to them.

I then battled on Conditional Cautions – where the Government is creating (in my view) a two-tier justice system as you will be given a choice to pay a fine or go to court. If you pay a fine (i.e. if you can afford it) – then you not only avoid the nasty business of going to court, but you also evade a criminal record. I call this Labour’s Pay & Go policies.

Then it was the powers that the Home Secretary wants to directly intervene in a failing police force. There used to be independent inspection – which if negative would trigger intervention. The Government had conceded that some independent inspection should still be involved – but there are no criteria for what constitutes ‘failing’ or ‘last resort’. Given the Government’s sensitivity to bad publicity, you can just imagine something going wrong and getting them bad headlines over a crime incident. And then in order to look active and in charge – the Home Sec ‘intervenes’. The operational independence of the police in my view would be seriously compromised. The last thing we need is any more politicisation of the police.

On police mergers the Government agreed to the five test that we and the Tories put forward – making the case, public and proper (not just statutory) consultation, adequate parliamentary time, addressing the funding etc. So no vote needed on this one!

And last but not least – prison inspectorates. We had already had a great victory in the Lords. The Government’s defeat meant they came back at the last minute with 20 pages of amendments to Lords Third Reading stage abandoning their proposals to merge five inspectorates together. I had laid such a similar amendment at Committee stage in the Commons – but the Government didn’t budge. Sadly we rely on the Lords to right wrongs! Anyway – there were a few details that pulled back power to the Home Sec again – and away from the independent inspectorates. So the Tories managed to get amendments down on these – but the Government defeated us.

I also just about managed to meet my constituent Caroline Sharpe – part of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer lobby today. And she was very successful in lobbying me (and I was very happy to be lobbied as so many women fail to get screened). I am going to see if I can get a letter out to those areas in Hornsey & Wood Green where screening take up is so poor. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know someone (or more) who has breast cancer. I have several friends – and my mother had it too. Early detection and the new treatments can change the prospects of survival dramatically. Also – as Caroline pointed out – Herceptin is easy to get if you go privately as are new forms of chemo – which up your chances. Our state system has to improve in its treatment of these types of diseases. It used to be that the difference between going private or state was just that you got a nice private room and food – but the clinical treatment was the same – and in the end it is the clinical treatment that really counts. Now there appears to be a clinical difference – then we need to agitate for the NHS to be able to provide the best possible.

If Brown was PM and Blair wanted the job…

So – today was Tony’s big farewell day. How did he do as regards his speech? Put it like this – if Brown was Prime Minister and Blair the heir apparent, I think after their pair of speeches, Labour members would be begging for Brown to step aside. Tony’s speech was a class act of oratory – unlike Gordon’s dullness the day before.

I have never been much of a fan of the Punch and Judy show that passes for Prime Minister’s Questions, but there’s no doubt that Blair is very, very skilled in that arena. As he also is at the podium in a party conference hall. There is much I disagreed with in his words today, but you can admire his skill in speech making even as you disagree with content.

And now – we enter a rather weird twilight, “he’s going but he’s not yet gone” period. Today’s speech was the speech you expect as someone goes, not months before they go. All very odd!

The end for Blair?

This is a nightmare ending for Blair and catastrophic for the Labour party. Having watched breaking news on and off all night (wakeful – don’t know why – usually log-like) the pundits have concluded that having named the day – Tony won’t last the course. Poor sod. Name the day! Name the day! Tony names the day (via the Sun) – and then the day isn’t good enough.

I would feel sorry – but much has been brought upon himself. If their was ever a Faustian pact ‘twixt him and Brown, once in he clearly didn’t want to go at the end of two terms. Clever (but not really) to announce he wouldn’t stand again at the next election as it warded off the inevitable speculation briefly about his tenure. Followed so swiftly after the election by when, when, when.

Tony’s marginal MPs fear their ending at the next election – and yet even in my short time in politics it has dawned that what the public like least is internal wars about the who. Concentrate on the greater good rather than the Labour good.

Having been one of those who signed my name on the letter that helped trigger Charles Kennedy’s demise, I also know that sometimes you have to do what you believe is in the best interest of the party – even to the very person who you have supported and championed. But as with Charles’s ending – which at least was swift in the event and for reasons of health (both his and the party) – it takes time to heal and move on. With hindsight now – and looking at what is happening in Labour – our own troubles seem to have been tackled and got over remarkably quickly. It was just a matter of weeks really, whilst Labour has been hobbled for month after month after month of speculation, plotting, intrigue and infighting.

Labour could have had an ‘orderly transition’ if Blair and Brown had worked it out and worked for the benefit of the party and the country. But given the enmity and the nature of the two men and the political context in which they hate each other – and the now rising realisation that Brown may not be the saviour he is cracked up to be (as I have been banging on about publicly for around two years now) – I can’t see that there is going to be any sort of happy transition.

Charles Clarke and Stephen Pound (both of whom I kind of like to be honest), I see, are both seizing the moment – and to remind the players in this ghastly ritualistic sacrifice that the people might be more impressed if the challenges that face the country were the priority of the government rather than this unseemly mess.

But you can’t have an effective government without an effective leader – and that’s the conundrum that the Westminster bubble will all enjoy over the coming weeks and months.

Prime Minister's Questions: is there a point?

Tony Blair at PMQsPrime Minister’s Questions – the bear pit of Parliament. What to say? I could just get sniffy and say what a load of rubbish and it has no bearing on the real world or indeed, the success of the party. William Hague was tip top at PMQs – but a flop everywhere else and as Conservative Leader. But this is the arena where the media get their kicks. They just love it – this macho test of testosterone. And as the media love it – this is the bit that gets the most coverage of all we do in Parliament – and so for many people “Parliament” pretty much equals PMQs.

So although it can make good entertainment, I doubt it helps politics (reputation and practice of) much. I have to say – when Blair is in full flow and horns are locked with the opposition – it does have that same excitement as a bull ring (not that I’ve ever been) or a heavyweight-boxing match (to which I have been and am totally ashamed of my liking for it).

However, after the general excitement and blood lust has worn off, I am now left totally unmoved by the theatrics. It has lost the thrill of the new – and when you hear Blair’s mantra – the mantra he uses in response to almost any question is to talk about £x being put into y public services, with a few other statistics thrown in, and he says we’re on the side of the clichés – oops, sorry – we’re on the side of the many, the law abiding and those who like apple pie. Whatever the issue – it comes down to Labour have spent money on it, so all must be ok.

Even where it may be the truth – it is soured by its frequent repetition and the tangential (if any) relationship it had to the question. And the questions are the one shot a backbencher gets at the Prime Minister – so the least he should do is have the courtesy to answer.

What never ceases to astonish me, however, is how many questioners come to grief because their question is too long. Mr Speaker’s tolerance for burbling on is strictly limited and he is wont to stand up and tell off the rambling questioner – who then sits down abruption with ruddy flushed and embarrassed face. You would think, would you not, that if you know that you are going to be called to ask a question because your name is on the Order Paper – you would have prepared for your 60 seconds in the limelight. You know the other members will start to jeer if you ramble on. You know Mr Speaker will cut you off. And you know that the Prime Minister will then cut you down to size because of your incompetence in questioning. And yet – time after time – I see really experienced members make this mistake – obviously carried away by the spotlight they forget how cruel the House is to those who stumble.

Boy Dave Cameron does the opposite. He over prepares. His soundbites are sometimes well worked out – but so studied that they fall flat. He has had some good moments – but to me – comes over as completely false – with no sense of belief behind his nifty nips at TB.

Does this all achieve anything other than the damage it does to the public standing of politics? The favourite answer of insiders is that it does have a big administrative effect – because everyone working in government knows that once a week, at PMQs, the Prime Minister may have to stand up and explain away their mistakes – and so in preparation for PMQs civil servants search out possible problem areas and demand explanations on behalf of the PM. Being put on your toes like this every week most of the year may help improve services at the front line, but I’m doubtful this is really the best way of doing things.

So can it change? Doubt it as long as the boys run the show. It is too close to their public school ya boo bullying for them to give it up. It obviously makes them feel like big boys with their ‘friends’ shouting them on from behind and jeering and making rude remarks about the other side. Some women join in – but to a much lesser extent. I think it is absolutely ludicrous. But as long as the media take their lead from this weekly ritual – it will persevere.

Round-up on the week

I’ve not managed to blog much this week, so rather than go back over the details retrospectively, it seems better to simply write about the issues that spring to mind.

Very interesting meeting on Tuesday – at a numberless and nameless building with the chief of the new Serious Organised Crime Agency. This new agency is there to get a serious grip on serious crime – trafficking and drugs and major fraud and the like. It was born only a couple of months ago and so for now we could only really talk about where it was going and what it aspired to deliver. Time will tell if the very steely determination to succeed delivers.

The Prime Minister came to the Commons this week to report on the G8 meeting. It was funny reading the George / Tony miked conversation from G8 where the two big boys hadn’t realised that the microphones were on. Yo Blair! What struck me most about the conversation was Blair’s lack of concern for status in offering to go to the Middle East and talk preliminary to Condi Rice – as he states that it doesn’t matter if he comes away without a deal but that it would be bad if she did. I was actually quite impressed that his thoughts were about doing whatever it took rather than about how he looked.

The story is moving pretty fast and there seems to be a split in the Foreign Office and No 10 thinking about Hezbollah and Israel and where blame is to be apportioned. Listening to the debates in Parliament this week, the focus seems to be on condemning Israel for disproportionate action and on blaming Hezbollah for starting this round of fighting and retaliation off. The usual supporters of either side stated their usual allegiances. I really don’t think that playing the blame game helps one bit. In fact, the row in Parliament over who is more to blame mirrors almost exactly the endless row between Israel and Fatah or Hamas or Hezbollah as who is to blame.

As I have blogged before – unless George Bush and Tony Blair make the players in this tragedy come to the table and work it out – this will go on and escalate. And it won’t be the governments or the leaders of the terrorist groups or us in Parliament who pay the price – it will be the long-suffering public on all sides. They are the sacrificial lambs of the political games in the Middle East.

At the end of the week I went to an away day with some Parliamentary colleagues and Saturday was a very long surgery – and a very hot one – in the toy library at Muswell Hill.