The Middle East conflict

Wake to worsening news on Israel and the Lebanon. It makes me feel physically sick to think of what is happening to the ordinary civilians on both sides. Tony Blair’s words from the G8 Summit are really strange – that this is not really to do with Israel and Hezbollah, but rather it’s about the axis of evil with Iran as the string puller in the background. It keeps coming back to this vague references to things we, Jo Public, don’t know or understand are going on. It’s time the government laid this out clearly with evidence. What lies ahead could be so catastrophic that we should know why our leaders say what they say.

When it started last week, the situation seemed redeemable. To me it was unquestionably wrong to kidnap the Israeli soldier – there was bound to be a reaction from Israel in the effort to retrieve that soldier. However, despite Israel’s contention that their destruction of the central power station and the shelling of Gaza is not collective punishment – it certainly appeared to target the many indiscriminately. So whilst I was sympathetic to Israel’s desire to recover their soldier, it is completely unacceptable for Israel to punish the people of Palestine.

There is also the bitter irony that in the name of being tough on terrorism, Israel is doing just what the terrorists want. They want Israel to be provoked, and been provoked it certainly has. Hamas looked like it was being backed into a very difficult (for it) corner over policy towards Israel and a possible Palestinian referendum on future attitude towards Israel. Losing that referendum (as looked likely for Hamas) would have placed it in a very difficult situation – no longer being able to claim to speak for the people of Palestine. But now with some terrorism, provocation, retaliation and escalation, they may get off the hook as violence spirals upwards and the referendum idea dies. Let’s hope not.

My personal position is and has always been to a commitment to a safe homeland for both Israel and Palestine. It is truly time for both sides to stop retaliating for endless wrongs and start negotiating their way to a settled peace for both nations. And it is the duty of the West to use its power and its influence to bring both to the table – something that Tony Blair and George Bush appear to be failing to drive forward. Unless and until the issues in this region are sorted, agreed, implemented and protected – we will continue to experience the destabilising of the Western world through terrorism.

Blair rolled up his sleeves and pursued peace in Northern Ireland. He has not done that for Israel and Palestine. He should use what time he has left to use his influence with the United States – and together bring both sides together around the table to begin a real journey to peace. That would be a real legacy with which to depart his time in office.

Listening to the Sunday political programs this morning with spokespeople from both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, it is clear that positions are hardening, blame is increasing and arguments on who started it are deepening. We will never get anywhere in this climate of escalating blame if all we argue about is who did what. This is truly a moment for the leaders of the world states meeting today to stand together and apply enough pressure to stop the atrocities that are killing ordinary people. It has to stop. There is power in the world to force a ceasefire. That has to be the first step. Israel is not going to be annihilated or driven into the sea – and the Palestinians must have a viable and safe state of their own.

Muslims and extremism

Got an email from a very disgruntled constituent complaining about the Islam Expo being allowed on ‘our’ patch (at Alexandra Palace) and opening roughly at the same time as anniversary of the 7/7 bombings. I answered saying the timing could be viewed that way – but in reality that the Muslims had born the brunt of the reactions to 7/7. And indeed the Islam Expo is reaching out across communities and extending understanding in my view. That is to be welcomed.

Our foreign policy, waging an illegal war, has caused some Muslims to become radicalised and a few to commit these hideous and unjustifiable acts. Tony Blair says Muslims have to do more. My own view is that we all have to do more. The only concern I would personally voice through my own experience is that I have encountered one Muslim man in a leadership position, who when speaking to me or publicly condemns suicide bombings but who amongst certain other groupings espouses tacit approval. That is not acceptable and I think is about individuals power bases.

[UPDATE: have found out more about this person’s views, and it looks like I was mistaken – so I won’t be pursuing this further.]

Anyway – to my point – there was an interesting – and largely positive – poll in The Sun (!) about Muslims, extremism and terrorism. It’s an internet poll – so we need to be aware of that and polling the Muslim community accurately can be very difficult in terms of who a poll reaches and what selectivity that binds into the results. So we shouldn’t get too het up about the details, but overall picture is, as I say, interesting.

Further details are on Anthony Wells’s excellent site, but here’s what I make of them.

Yes, a small minority of Muslims think our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq justify attacks on British civilians. But it’s only slightly more (10% rather than 7%) than the figure in the non-Muslim population. In other words – there isn’t a great swathe of the Muslim population that believes in attacks on civilians. As for the deeply wrong minority who do – well, they are nearly as frequently found amongst non-Muslims as amongst Muslims. In fact, as the non-Muslim population is much larger, the majority of people who think such attacks are right are non-Muslims.

Also, a majority of non-Muslims here think problems with Muslim extremism have got worse in the last year. But amongst Muslims themselves – who are of course much closer to what is actually happening in their own communities – the figures are much lower at just under a quarter. And a fifth of Muslims meanwhile think problems with extremism have actually decreased in the past year.

One final straw in the wind: 9% of Muslims think it would be best if they didn’t integrate with the rest of society, but 16% of non-Muslims think it’s best if Muslims don’t integrate. Food for thought there!

In fact listening to radio phone-ins this week was equally struck by number of non-Muslims phoning in to say they didn’t want more integration and by a very good call from a woman who reminded us that when Brits go and live abroad, they often open an English pub, wear English clothes, speak English and set up a little England enclave!

I'm given a set of teachers

Cut out teachers! No – not cut them out but paper cut-outs! I go to Bounds Green School to receive the cut-outs that the children have done so that I can give them to Tony Blair and remind him of his promise to ensure that every child in the world has the opportunity of going to school by the year 2015. It is a mammoth challenge. For example – Bangladesh alone needs 167,000 teachers and Africa three million.

The children come into assembly in the hall and I talk to them for a bit about the challenge and about the poverty around the world that means that what our kids take for granted, many millions of children around the world don’t even have a chance of – especially girls. One girl asks a really good question at the end. She asked how we would make sure that the money was used properly. That’s something we all want to know and I will put the question to T Blair!

Straight on to North London Schools Exhibition on their work on International Networking. This is a project in Haringey which links schools with those in other countries through their teachers, teaching and pupil contact – and there were some fantastic projects on display. I was really thrilled by the kids there whose horizons will have been forever widened by the experiences of this project. I believe it is really important to give children a vision of a much wider world than their own daily lives. If I think back to my school days, I don’t particularly remember my lessons – but what I do remember is the trips we took, my foreign pen pals, the direct contact with others from other countries. Those memories and experiences shape your thinking.

Prime Minister's Questions

Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) sees Cameron flounder for about the third week running while Ming does good. He goes on the dreadful situation in Palestine. Why oh why doesn’t Tony Blair roll up his sleeves and work at the Middle East situation the way he did for Northern Ireland? The political will of Blair and Bush just doesn’t seem to be there to sort this out. The people of both Palestine and Israel deserve peace. It is the people who have been completely let down by the rulers – now and before. If the USA and we have muscle – then for goodness sake use it to force the road map through to peace before more generations grow up in fear or poverty and hatred.

After PMQs I am leading on the front bench on a Statutory Instrument on the floor of the House. They are usually done in committees but this is about bringing into being detention without charge for 28 days. It’s the issue on which we defeated the government’s push for 90 days. There has been a delay until now because Dominic Grieve (a Tory) suggested that we needed a new code to cover the treatment of those being detained under this new order.

It has taken the Government all this time to come up with it. Considering the indecent rush with which they pushed to get the time without charge extended, it is a bit of a rum do.

We are all supporting the code, but I raise issues around how this is likely to affect a community (the Muslim community) which is already extremely tender from the mistaken crude associations that some people make that Muslim = terrorist. Anyway, the Minister acknowledges the points I raise – and the statute is made.

DNA and discrimination

Off to do the Sunday Politics Show for the third week in a row. Added to our number this week is Tony Travers. We hash over vagaries of London’s voting patterns. After the show, Tim Donovan, Tony and I chat about the disintegration of the Labour party as it appears to descend into civil war with Brown’s henchmen turning up the heat – hoping to force Blair into going, or at least stating when he will be going.

I try and persuade Tim to do a show on DNA. I have been championing a number of issues around DNA for some years – and the Independent on Sunday runs a story using a quote from me and the answer I got to a Parliamentary Question on what percentage of innocent DNA comes from black and ethnic minorities. It’s about 24% nationwide – but the figure that no one is picking up on yet – is that in London this kicks up to 57% of innocent DNA is coming from non-whites. It’s huge – way, way above their actual representation in the population as a whole.

Pubcast

PMQs saw the return of Hague. Still great at this – but it never carried out to the country or upped the Tory vote. Blair was fizzing over the coming debate in the afternoon – a debate on the Terror Laws coming back from the Lords – who had amended the original Bill to take out the offence of ‘glorification’ and several others.

Tony was in a right strop – and posturing – and over-doing it. He always seems to believe that if he appears to be passionate enough – body and soul Blair stake your life on it – somehow it makes it right.

I was leading for the Lib Dems on the second string of amendments – where I was trying to persuade the Government to take out the bit about ‘in the opinion of a constable’. The Government want to leave it to a constable to decide whether material is ‘unlawfully terrorist related’ and should therefore be taken off the net by the Internet Service Provider’.

Scuse – me! We wanted judicial oversight to that decision. Police constables are not trained to make such judgements – and a police officer’s opinion should not be the arbiter of the terror laws. Anyway – we lost the lot. Depressing once again.

The only light-hearted moment was more on yesterday’s comment about ‘gnawing on vitals’ – Stephen Pound came over and sat next to us and the story had got back to him. He took it in good humour!

I must watch what I say under my breath. I must watch what I say under my breath. I must watch what I say under my breath. I must watch what I say under my breath. I must watch what I say under my breath. I must watch what I say under my breath.

Evening drinks with journos for Chris Huhne’s campaign. Chris himself had gone to Cambridge for a hustings. But lots of journos turned up and the vibes are pretty good – but no idea what the ‘armchair’ members are likely to do. Find I am being interviewed by Recess Monkey and Guido Fawkes (not their real names!!) – cannot imagine what will be up on their website. It’s called a pub-cast (as opposed to podcast I assume). Lively duo – but left a recorder running for a very long time in a pub!

The flippiest flopper in town

Busy day today. First off – accompany Alistair Carmichael (our Shadow Home Secretary) to the Home Office for a meeting with Minister Tony McNaulty. Basically it was to run through his thinking on immigration and asylum. He wasn’t as bad close up as I had feared given to my knowledge he has never smiled. This is probably an exaggeration – and it may well be that he has simply never smiled at me!

Rush back for Home Affairs team meeting followed by Prime Minister’s Questions where Tony Blair made absolute mincemeat of Cameron – and very enjoyable it was too. I am not partial to blood sports – but it would be disingenuous if I denied the pleasure I got from his mauling.

Firstly Blair was well on song – albeit Cameron handed him a real gift by saying that Labour had flip-flopped. Coming from the flippiest flopper in town – it was then open season. I am particularly incensed over Cameron’s rubbish at the moment because of his latest conversion to getting rid of the Royal Prerogative – i.e. Tony Blair’s ability to take this country to war – and wants parliament to have the authority in this. Only a few months ago Clare Short brought in a Private Members Bill for the armed forces which would have done exactly that. Friday morning when such Bills are debated is quite difficult to get MPs to stay for – however lots of Lib Dems and Labour did – because it was so important. But only 6 Tories were in evidence and voted – and guess what – David Cameron was nowhere to be seen! The rank hypocrisy is striking – so his come-uppance was richly deserved.

Then I dashed over to Methodist Central Hall for a lobby by the local Defend Council Housing group – who are up in arms about ALMOs. Their complaint is that the goalposts are moving on what was voted on by leaseholders and tenants. I raise it with my Council Group in the evening and our housing spokesperson, Dave Beacham is going to make sure that the motions they passed in their forum are discussed by the Board.

Then I rush (late) to Environmental Audit Committee where we take evidence on why the government is too lily livered to actually stick to its targets or deal with taxing consumption. Then I rush to a meeting to thrash our the line on DNA (more to come another day). which is one of my passions (a bit nerdy) and then rush back to Haringey to Council Group.

More leadership and drugs on the street

It was back to Parliament on Monday! Of course – the whole place is a tinderbox of gossip. My own colleagues taking comfort from being back together again – and Labour and Tory colleagues privately very sympathetic on the whole about the hideous situation that everyone has been dealing with. The House of Commons is surprisingly kind in many ways when there is real tragedy. Not replicated on the floor of the chamber, however, whenever a LibDem spoke at Work and Pensions questions. Cat calls and jeers – so much for the ‘new’ politics.

I do one radio interview, for the World at One. It doesn’t air Monday for reasons I don’t understand, though goes out Tuesday instead. Needless to say – out of the questions up on my blog to potential candidates – the one the World at One focuses in on – is the one about what part each candidate played in the Kennedy downfall and what they had done during the previous five years to tackle the problem? I thought I was pretty balanced – as there are two key angles: was it bungled plotting, or was Charles impossible to deal with?

I have various phone calls and meetings with would-be candidates or potential but non-declared candidates and so on and then rush back to Hornsey & Wood Green for a meeting with the Chief Exec of Jacksons Lane Community Centre. The building needs major repairs and renovations due to nothing much being done on maintenance over the years (as I understand it Haringey Council are the landlord). So – in essence – it’s about how to get the work done and funded.

Following that I rush to Haringey Civic Center for a full council meeting and then I rush back to Parliament for a vote at 10pm. Following close of play – talk to more MPs and then get home after midnight.

Which is unfortunate – as I have to be up around 5am to study my brief as the Prime Minister is launching his Respect Action Plan in the morning and I have to cover all the media bids because Mark Oaten is going to announce his candidacy.

So, this morning (Tuesday) it was up at crack of dawn. Media bids from BBC, News 24 and Sky – and various radio. So head straight for Millbank. Tony Blair always seems so enthusiastic when he launches new projects or initiatives – which is a real art when so much of what gets announced is just recycled and repackaged!

It is definitely right to tackle the falling standard of behaviour, but – as ever – Labour’s good intentions boil down to more summary justice – a sort of ‘move ’em out’ attitude. The problem with ASBOs and Banning Orders and Dispersal Zones etc is they don’t do enough to actually change behaviour.

Just in the middle of all the interviews I get a call from Ed at my constituency office. He says I have to come home immediately because my next-door neighbour but one’s builders have found two black binbags in the road outside my house filled with cannabis!

We’ve had a number of strange things left outside my little drive – but never anything this extraordinary. Funnily enough I had noticed the bags last night when I came home but assumed they were just dumped rubbish and this morning reversing out of my drive I had run over one of them.

Anyway – first, I ask my daughter (who is at home) and Ed to check this out as far as they can – and then ring the police. Ed rings me later to say that he went up to my house, rang the police who came (three cars apparently!) and who confirmed it was indeed cannabis leaves. Apparently the male part of the plant. (I confess to not knowing there were gender bits). And they took the bags away. End of episode!

Back to anti-social behaviour. I recently had to submit a piece to the HeadsUp ASBO Forum as I had not been able to attend in person which touches, albeit very briefly, on the issues around anti-social behaviour.

The only really new bit is the idea of a parenting academy. It’s not a college for parents to attend – it’s a college where social workers etc can get special training to work with parents who need support and skills. I am all for real support as societal breakdown is seemingly having a knock-on effect and creating an ‘anything goes’ and ‘no one cares’ society.

I remain convinced that the answer is sustained interest and attention on the child with lots of alternative occupations to keep them busy and aspirations and pathways to enable real behaviour change. Labour’s problem is all headlines – but little follow through. For example, if a kid breaches an ASBO s/he can go to jail – where they will undoubtedly learn more handy criminal tricks to perpetrate on release. Hardly the sort of change of behaviour that is going to bring about respect!

So – I do my stuff and then hurry back to meet a few colleagues about the leadership. Then as I drift through Portcullis House – I am tackled by Mark Oaten’s camp and then Ming goes by and says he will see me at 5pm to answer my questions. So at 5pm I go to his office. What passed between us is confidential – but what I will say is that Ming was very good and very forthright.

Read the day’s letters and sign them, make some more phone calls and then the Whip comes through as unlikely to be any vote tonight. So can head off. Message from Simon Hughes that he will see me to answer my questions tomorrow.

David Cameron's debut

Off bright and early to Parliament for a ‘Green Ministers’ breakfast briefing on the proposed Marine Bill – still in its infancy. I am the ‘Green Minister’ for our Home Office team. Our manifesto commitment was to interweave green issues into the heart of all issues – so each Lib Dem team has its own Green Minister.

Today’s subject is really interesting – although not directly related to my constituency (being landlocked). It is helpful to be briefed by the experts in the field of marine life to understand the issues. What strikes me is the point they make about us having land planning laws and regs until they are coming out of our ears – but virtually nothing for our seas. Rare species and environments are disappearing, virtually nothing is protected and there seem to be no rules about priorities in terms of planning at sea. So someone can create a port – anywhere – with no regard to damage by placement and no requirement to even consider it. At least the Government is prepared to bring forward the legislation – but not all the departments seem fully engaged and you need the ODPM and the DTI fully on board!

Home Affairs team meeting is followed by Prime Ministers’ Questions. Of course, it’s David Cameron’s debut! He did really well on his first bite of the cherry, nicely telling off Hilary Armstrong for sitting there shouting childish comments at him. She does this all the time and it is unedifying and a public telling off saw her blush nicely. However, he didn’t make much impact on his environment question – I guess the Tories and environment caring, sharing are still not believable even with that nice David Cameron saying he agreed with Tony Blair on this and education.

Tony B pointed out to the Notting Hill Prince that if he agreed with it all – he had better vote for it and the budget to fund it. They were both well-behaved – which personally I found quite refreshing. However, I suspect that the Tories agreeing with Tony Blair and the Government line is a one trick pony. Tony Cameron can’t say that every time he speaks – it just won’t ring true or (I suspect) be deliverable. Still an adequate start. Style 8 – content 3!

Now Charles Kennedy, on the other hand, asked a stonkingly good question on Extraordinary Rendition (that’s the American policy of picking up suspects around the world, and flying them off on secret flights to secret locations with no trial, no legal representation and no accountability). Charles put Tony B on the back foot for not knowing what he was talking about and not telling Jack Straw – anything! And this is what question time should be about – serious stuff.

Dash back to my office to do an interview with the Westminster Hour to go out Sunday night on Cameron and what it means for the LibDems. Pontificate – but the truth is – who knows fopr sure … yet!

Last port of the day is attendance at St Andrews Church in Alexandra ward to see the local amateur dramatic society perform three plays. This is their last outing after 81 years – as the Church is renovating (lottery money) and is taking away their storage room and the stage which will make it impossible to go on. Such a shame. I don’t quite understand as when I visited the Church recently to look at the plans for the renovation I thought they had built in storage for the theatre company and I didn’t remember the Vicar saying that they would have to go. Must write and ask if any chance of them staying – somehow.

The production was very professional. I used to do a fair amount of am / dram myself from the age of about 9 until about 22! It took me back to those days. And as I have been told that ‘politics is showbiz for ugly people’ I obviously found an alternative outlet for my thespian aspirations.

Policing in Haringey

My sister and her husband came to Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) today. Given that I only get four allocated tickets for guests for PMQs per year – and these were my first personal guests – and the allocated days were given back in May – we got lucky! This was Michael Howard’s swan song – and it was pure theatre. Personally, whilst huge fun on occasion – PMQs is the most unedifying of political boys stuff you can get with all the shouting, barracking and point-scoring that goes on.

Put excellently by my colleague Jo Swinson, the youngest MP in the House at 25, who had Question 3 on the order paper. (‘Order paper’ – another piece of Parliamentary jargon; think of it like a detailed agenda for the day, listening all the business to be done). Jo’s question was:

“As the Prime Minister was saying goodbye to the fourth Tory Leader, is it not also time to say goodbye to the yah-boo style of Prime Minister’s Questions?”

Tony Blair had clearly been briefed on anything local to Jo’s constituency that she might ask as a supplementary question. (Your first question gets printed in advance, but normal MPs then get one supplementary –Michael Howard gets more – the contents of which Tony Blair doesn’t get advanced notice of) . He had clearly been briefed on all the national issues that might arise. But he clearly was left briefless – if you know what I mean – by Jo’s very clever and very direct questions.

“Yes” said the Prime Minister!

In the afternoon, as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, I was questioning the Government about instituting good practise in terms of commissioning by the Government – green commissioning. What a wet duo came. If our green credentials rest on this lot – we are doomed. The planet has had it. Lack of enthusiasm for their chosen subject would be an understatement. I was truly gob-smacked by their lacklustre performance and seeming disinterest in the whole subject.

Thankfully, the Minister for such matters, followed on as the next ‘witness’. Whilst making virtually no progress (or snail-like progress if you prefer) at least he was enthusiastic and knew his stuff.

After close of play at Westminster I rush back to Hornsey & Wood Green for the Police Consultative Committee at the Civic Centre. The new local Commander, Simon O’Brian is there and gives his first vision for his time in charge of policing in our borough of Haringey. He knows the borough – which in my view is a great advantage. The thing I could never understand when I was on the Met Police Authority was the chess game the higher-ups played with borough commanders. The Met in its wisdom seems to rate Borough Commander as virtually a short-term job – moving commanders on every couple of years. Whereas to me, knowledge is not only power – but the only way to get the intelligence on who and how things happen, I think it should be five years minimum in post for borough commanders and rate the pay of the more senior officers. This post is the one that makes the real difference to all of us mortals scuttling around trying not to get mugged.

I asked him how he proposed to take the ‘debate’ that Ian Blair (Met Commissioner) says he wants to have with the public over policing forward. I am not sure the methodology is in place – and quite frankly – what local people still want is someone local to answer the phone when they call in about a non-urgent issue. Not an answer-phone when no one ever phones back – but a real human being who knows the area. And they want the police to come when they call. And we all want to see police on the beat (getting better!). It’s not rocket science.